Views From Kansas: Answers needed on no-bid deals

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

Kansas lawmakers should demand a thorough review of the state’s rules for awarding no-bid, sole-source contracts.

That message is clear from recent reporting in The Star and Wichita Eagle. During the past eight years, Kansas has authorized $550 million to buy products and services without competitive bids.

The purchases include technical services, consultants’ advice, software, fuel, even groceries. State officials have approved no-bid purchases more than 1,000 times.

There is no indication of illegality in the purchases, which must first go through an obscure process called “prior authorization.” But half a billion dollars is a lot of money. Taxpayers deserve to know if they’re getting the best deals possible.

“It’s the dark underbelly of politics,” said state Rep. Jan Kessinger, of Overland Park, a Republican and a member of the Appropriations Committee.

“When you get all these sole sources of supply, or no-bid contracts, that’s just not a good way for the public to have their business conducted,” he said.

To be clear: On occasion, all public officials need flexibility to purchase goods and services quickly without a formal bid process. Buying cleanup services after a small flood or fire is a good example.

Seeking bids on low-cost items can sometimes be complicated and counterproductive.

That isn’t the case here. The data analyzed includes only no-bid purchases of more than $100,000 — a threshold far in excess of any need for speed or convenience in state government.

Some of the no-bid deals include consultant contracts, which deserve special scrutiny.

There may be circumstances in which one firm has a specific expertise that precludes the need for bids. Yet as Kessinger points out, that claim could easily be abused: A state official could simply draw contract requirements to satisfy only one favored bidder, precluding other companies from seeking the work.

That’s why no-bid contracts must be publicized and open to public review. Under current law, no-bid deals in excess of $100,000 must be posted a mere week before the contract is awarded.

That simply isn’t enough time.

Requiring bids isn’t red tape or mere paperwork. It’s a process that leads to the lowest cost and the best possible quality. Competition is the essence of best practices for government purchases, a concept that Kansas officials — and all public bodies — should remember.

(That includes the federal government, which recently awarded a $10 billion contract to Cerner without a normal bidding process.)

We wish we could ask the state auditor to review the no-bid practices of Kansas government. But sadly, Kansas lawmakers declined to put a state auditor position on the ballot this year.

Perhaps their goal is to prevent anyone from digging too deeply into the state’s purchasing practices.

Lawmakers will have to demand answers on the public’s behalf.

Reporting has once again revealed a problem in the way Kansas does business. Its representatives should begin the repair work as quickly as possible.

— Originally published in The Kansas City Star


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