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    Tuesday, April 23, 2024

    Contracting Standards Board bill killed in House after passage in state Senate

    Hartford — The Connecticut House of Representatives did not raise a bill concerning the state Contracting Standards Board on Wednesday, the last day of the legislative session, leaving it stranded after the Senate passed the bill last week.

    House Democratic leaders were ambiguous on whether they would raise the bill when asked during each of the last three days of the legislative session, citing concerns about the legislation from state agency heads, a lack of time remaining in a short session and pointing out that some bills just don’t get picked up.

    By a bipartisan, unanimous, the state Senate approved the bill to shore up Contracting Standards Board staff Friday night.

    The legislation would have barred the governor from cutting funding to the watchdog agency, which is meant to provide oversight of contracts the executive branch enters into. But an amendment to the bill kept it from going further — the bill also could have allowed the board to investigate all of the state’s quasi-public agencies if that provision wasn’t killed in the Senate on Friday.

    House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Wednesday morning that there were concerns about the bill but the decision to remove the section allowing the board to investigate all quasi-public agencies last week conceivably gave it new life in the House. House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said he’d been speaking with Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, about the bill, and said he knew she was working with different state agencies on the bill.

    Ritter said agency commissioners expressed concerns about the bill.

    "It would just slow down a lot of their processes with procurement," Rojas said.

    When it became clear the bill wouldn’t be raised Wednesday evening, Flexer called the development “very disappointing.” She said she first heard about state agency concerns this week, even though there was a public hearing process for the bill and the amended version had been out since March.

    “Honestly I tried in recent days to get to their concerns and see if there was a way to work on the language to address them, but at the end of the day, unfortunately some people in state government don’t want additional oversight,” she added.

    Flexer said the bill was a sort of “companion piece” to the funding for the board in the budget and noted that the bill would have extended extra protections to the board and its funding not included in the budget.

    “This bill would have created protection that the Contracting Standards Board has never had. This bill would have treated the Contracting Standards Board like other government watchdog agencies in the Office of Government Accountability,” Flexer said. “I just think it’s disappointing that ... people who have the privilege of doing public work don’t want sunlight on that work by the residents of the state of Connecticut.”

    The state Department of Children and Families "felt they have mandates, and they have to move very, very quickly — they thought it was restrictive,” Ritter said, adding that the fact that Senate made changes means DCF was “probably right.”

    On Tuesday, the Democratic leaders said they weren’t sure whether agency heads expressing concerns about the bill was coordinated with the governor’s office.

    “We gotta work through these comments,” Ritter said at the time. “The DCF commissioner, I absolutely have so much respect for, I think she’s one of the better commissioners in the state. They don’t hit us up a lot with stuff to be honest with you ... her email pointed to some stuff I gotta take really seriously.”

    According to Gov. Ned Lamont spokesperson Max Reiss, if the bill was passed in the House on Wednesday, the last day of the legislative session, the governor would review it. Reiss said the governor’s office hasn’t been closely following the bill’s legislative process.

    Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said Wednesday that the budget, which has now been passed by both the Connecticut Senate and House and is supported by the governor, “has the money for the Contracting Standards Board.”

    “We say they can’t do holds or lapses, and they have to hire the staff,” Osten said. “There’ll be a total of six staff, the executive director and five others.”

    “We’ve already gotten all the financial protections into the budget,” she said.

    Flexer said the fact that the board is going to be staffed for the first time in 15 years "is a huge deal."

    Senate passage

    “It is the waning days of the legislative session; in order to make progress we must ... make a compromise,” Flexer said Friday when speaking about the removal of the quasi-public agencies component.

    “The State Contracting Standards Board was put in place 15 years ago to give the people of Connecticut confidence in contracts government entered into. Since that time, they’ve never really been given the tools to fully function and provide the oversight ... necessary,” Flexer added. “The one staff person that they’ve had has done incredible work over the course of those 15 years, but they have not been fully empowered to realize the vision of this legislation created 15 years ago.”

    Flexer referenced Osten, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, for working “diligently not only on the bill we’re debating today, but also on a budget we’ll debate soon that will provide the full staffing this contracting standards board needs to realize the purpose it was given 15 years ago.”

    The board is not protected in the budget the way it would've been under the bill, "but Cathy Osten did an incredible thing and she made it so the governor's budget office can't make reductions or implement lapses if the budget is in surplus," Flexer said. This means that if the state ever doesn't have a surplus, the governor's office would still have the power to cut funding to the board, which is where the killed bill would have come in.

    During a news conference last week with Lamont and legislative leaders, which announced agreement on a budget adjustment, Osten highlighted the full funding allocated to the board.

    “We didn’t only take care of the big things, the big things establish everything. We worked together to fund the Contracting Standards Board, something small, only $400,000, it’s in the budget, completely funding it,” Osten said. “We funded small things that make a big difference to the residents of the state of Connecticut.” There ended up being about $467,000 allocated in the budget for the board.

    Eastern Connecticut legislators from both sides of the aisle have been in agreement on fully funding the state Contracting Standards Board since at least the beginning of the legislative session.

    The board recently completed an investigation into the Connecticut Port Authority. Parts of the board’s report, which criticized past practices of the port authority, were contested by the authority.

    Lamont's initial budget proposal allocated $218,770 to the Auditors of Public Accounts for three additional auditors, instead of the additional $467,055 needed to fully staff the Contracting Standards Board. The board, in addition to an executive director and intern, has been seeking to fund five more positions: a chief procurement officer, staff attorney, accounts examiner, research analyst and trainer. While the state legislature approved extra funding for the new staff positions last year, the funding for 2022 and 2023 later was rescinded.

    A federal grand jury has issued a subpoena for documents related to Konstantinos “Kosta” Diamantis, the former deputy director of Office of Policy and Management, who was assigned to oversee the Connecticut Port Authority’s $235 million State Pier redevelopment project and also led the state’s Office of School Construction Grants and Review. Diamantis resigned after being suspended amid an ethics probe of his daughter’s hiring by Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr. and a school construction contractor. The FBI is seeking documents related to school construction projects, among other things.

    Following public pressure, Lamont reversed course and supported fully funding the board during an interview with The Day editorial board in March.

    “I think we’ll probably make a change,” Lamont said at the time. “I didn’t appreciate everyone saying ‘Lamont is cutting the state Contracting Standards Board.’ I funded it the same way all my predecessors have funded it.”

    s.spinella@theday.com

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