It's decision time for a special legislative task force looking into abuses of Maryland's contract-award system. Members are split over what to do about the problems that have arisen. But there's no doubt major changes are in order.
The group's primary decision deals with oversight. At the moment, Maryland's contracting system is a hodge-podge involving numerous agencies. No one is in overall command. In fact, state officials cannot even say with certainty how many contracts are handed out by Maryland each year.
There are various ways to provide the kind of coordinated scrutiny taxpayers deserve. The problem is that any attempt to expand an existing agency's purview enlarges complications. Examples:
* Give the Board of Public Works enlarged power and hire a
procurement adviser for expertise. The board, though, is heavily influenced by one member of the panel, the governor, whose agencies are often involved directly in these nasty disputes. Impartial oversight would be impossible.
* Give the attorney general greater authority over contract awards. Here again, the attorney general has been in the middle of the current controversy. His assistants often act as vocal defenders of agency decisions on contract awards, making it impossible for the attorney general to act as a neutral arbiter.
* Give the comptroller's office the power. But the comptroller sits the Board of Public Works, too, and must vote on all contract awards. How can he scrutinize contract bidding when he's also going to be voting on these contracts?
* Give the state auditor oversight over contract awards. His auditors, though, are trained only to conduct compliance reviews of agency books. They aren't in a good position to act as referees in these complex and technical contract disputes.
There's only one way to ensure that the awarding of state contracts is done impartially and fairly: establish an independent inspector-general's office. This works extremely well on the federal level and in a number of states. If the IG is given the powers to do the job, he or she would be able to conduct preemptive investigations into contract disputes, coordinate probes undertaken by other state agencies, follow-up on the findings of the state auditor and act as a final arbiter on the validity of the procurement process.
Maryland's contract-awards system has lost its credibility. It needs an impartial coordinator and investigator, someone who can assure the public that these multi-million-dollar contracts are not being steered toward friends of government officials. An independent inspector-general would achieve that goal. Anything less would be merely moving the chairs around on the deck of a foundering ship that is already tilting.