The Ohio Controlling Board Needs Control

Toledo Blade - May 17, 2003
   

by Zach Schiller, in The Toledo Blade 

Ask most Ohioans about it, and they ll probably scratch their heads in
puzzlement. Yet if relatively unknown, the State Controlling Board is a powerful
force in the statehouse, affecting most citizens with its decisions. During budget
squeezes such as we are experiencing now, its role grows even larger.

Every two weeks, its seven members – six legislators and one budget department
official – meet and decide how the state will spend millions of dollars.

Most state agencies come before the board at one time or another with requests,
from contracts to design bridges and manage construction projects, to aid for
schools and colleges, to grants and loans for companies aimed at economic
development.

But this oversight board isn t doing enough oversight. At the same time, it has
taken on powers of the legislature that should be left to the legislature itself.

Though the Republican majority indicated recently that it was tightening up on its
review, the board approved seven out of every 10 requests it received last year
without any discussion. Some of these items deserved questioning.

For instance, the board approved a contract for radiology services at a state
prison last year when there was only one bidder.

Even as Connecticut-based Stanley Works was gaining national notoriety last
spring for moving – on paper – to the Caribbean to avoid paying U.S. taxes, the
Controlling Board was accepting a Development Department request to spend
$100,000 supporting the relocation of a company facility within the Cleveland
metropolitan area.

The board approved the money without question.

When board members do ask questions, they sometimes go on and approve
requests, despite inadequate answers. During 2002, the board actually voted
down just one request of the 1,665 it considered. Another 52 were deferred or
withdrawn, often before the board considered them. Most of these were later
approved.

The board may transfer funds from one agency program to another, or allow
agencies to spend money they accumulate from fees and other sources. This
concentrates in the hands of seven people authority that otherwise would be
vested in the legislature.

The board grants waivers of competitive selection for major contracts that do not
go through the state s Department of Administrative Services standard bidding process.
Sometimes, there is good reason for this – the agency employing the contractor may
have used its own competitive selection process, or the product may only be available
from one vendor.

With dozens of contracts approved last year, however, it is unclear whether they
were competitively bid or not. The result: Millions of dollars in state spending
without proper accountability.

The board approved 56 contracts last year for outside psychiatrists at the
Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for a total of more than $8 million. In
a number of instances, these contractors were not hired through a competitive
process to begin with, and have had contracts renewed for years since then.

Given the pay scale for psychiatrists who are state employees, it also seems clear
that the state would save money if these jobs were brought back in-house.

Some of the board s approvals of competitive waivers strain the imagination. In
March, it approved a $450,000 increase in a contract with a blue-chip,
Washington, D.C., law firm to help craft the details of proposed cuts in Medicaid.

The firm will be paid $300 an hour, more than double the usual state rate for
outside counsel. The board apparently overlooked the irony of the state hiring a
law firm at such a rate to help eliminate health insurance for 50,000 Ohioans.

Tracking the board s actions closely is difficult. The board should make sure that
public access to its decision-making is broadened, starting with electronic access
in advance of its meetings, to the requests that it considers.

For its part, the General Assembly should review the board s powers and
eliminate those that more properly belong to legislature.

It should require that competitive waivers be allowed only when shown to be
absolutely necessary, and insist that agencies requesting them provide an
explanation of what process was used to award each contract.

It also should establish strict criteria governing unbid consulting contracts, and
require cost comparisons before allowing public services to be provided by private
vendors.

In short, more controls are needed for the Controlling Board.

 

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