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Public-contract process won’t be what it used to be, and that’s epic

As the dismal saga of bribery and extortion swirling around former Commissioner Chris Epps and Mississippi Department of Corrections contracts continues to make headlines, epic reforms to the public-contracting process slipped through the Legislature with scant media attention.

Longtime champion of contract reform Rep. Jerry Turner passed legislation that revamps the public contract review board and tightens its procedures. Gov. Phil Bryant, another champion of contract reform, signed his bill into law March 29.

A similar bill authored by Sen. John Polk died, but a companion bill passed that further tightened definitions related to public purchasing. His bill was signed into law by Bryant on March 20.

These changes build and improve on earlier reforms Turner pushed through during the 2015 legislative session with help from Bryant’s special Task Force on Contracting and Procurement in the Mississippi Department of Corrections co-chaired by Judge Robert Gibbs and Andy Taggart.

Taggart described these latest changes as “significant.”

In January, Turner and Polk, chairmen, respectively, of the House and Senate Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committees, issued a joint press release on their proposed changes.

“For too long Mississippi has had a less than adequate contract and personal services contract approval system,” Polk said. “A good attempt was made in 2015 to improve the system by enacting HB825. But we have found that some state agencies have found ways around the intended controls, and have interfered with the full intent of the law.”

“Today I am pleased to announce the introduction of new legislation which will greatly enhance standards for procurements by the solicitation of ‘Requests For Proposals,’” Turner said. “Also, the Department of Finance and Administration ‘Public Procurement Review Board’ will be reconstituted to include the powers and duties of the PSCRB.”

That “also” was a pretty big deal. The Public Procurement Review Board is under the Department of Finance and Administration while the Public Service Contract Review Board is under the State Personnel Board. The chair of the PSCRB by statute is the State Personnel Board Executive Director. The chair of the revamped PPRB will be elected by its appointed members and the Executive Director of DFA relegated to an ex officio and non-voting member of the panel.

Turner’s bill gives the reconstituted Public Procurement Review Board broad oversight and policy control over the public contracting process. Other changes establish detailed guidelines regarding RFP solicitations and evaluations, require the PPRB to pre-approve RFP evaluation weightings for each contract, require price to be at least 35 percent of the evaluation weightings, spell out requirements for sole source contracts, and clarify limited activities over which the board will not have oversight.

Polk’s bill creates new, specific definitions for public funds, commodities, equipment, furniture, emergencies and construction along with guidelines for Certified Purchasing Offices, Agents and Procurement Managers.

The bills were highlighted by columnists Geoff Pender and Wyatt Emmerich early in the process, but they seemed to go invisible after that.

They won’t go unnoticed by state agencies when they take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.