Fix for Tattered Procurement Law

January 19, 1994

A special joint legislative panel has come up with some practical suggestions for strengthening Maryland's 13-year-old law governing the purchase of $4 billion worth of goods and services each year for state government. The proposals go a long way toward mending what is clearly a tattered procurement statute.

During four months of hearings, the blue-ribbon panel heard testimony about irregularities in awarding multi-million-dollar contracts. No wrongdoing was uncovered, but there were many instances of subtle forms of favoritism that the 1981 procurement law was supposed to avoid.

Our preferred solution would be the establishment of an independent procurement office to oversee the state's vast contracting network. Legislators, though, opted for a less drastic move.

They want to strengthen the Board of Public Works, the three-member panel that passes judgment on major contracts. The most important step recommended: create a "procurement adviser" to review and offer advice to the board on purchases by state agencies. If -- but only if -- such an officer is given the power to act with full independence and is given sufficient funds, can he or she correct many of the flaws in the current law.

What is needed is someone to provide oversight and scrutiny of the various agency contract awards, someone to review the draft bid specifications, someone to critically review proposed contract modifications and sole-source justifications. This adviser can offer education, training and on-going advice to procurement officers in the various departments and provide much-needed expert guidance to the Board of Public Works.

The three members of the board -- governor, comptroller and treasurer -- try their best to give each of the 1,200 contracts on the agenda each year careful review. But they are overworked and have little expertise on technical aspects of this highly technical field. A procurement adviser seems an excellent step in the right direction.

Yet Gov. William Donald Schaefer is sending signals of disapproval. His chief of staff apparently wants to see indictments before endorsing procurement reforms. We believe you don't need to see the flames before calling the fire department. The same is true with the state's procurement troubles. There are problems with the 1981 law. The legislative panel wants to plug the gaps before matters get out of hand. Let's put this fire out now while there's time to avoid a major embarrassment.

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