State representative Jerry Turner from Baldwyn knows about competition. As a businessman running grocery stores, his company must work hard to bring customers good products at a fair price. It’s not easy.
Watching state agencies negotiate multi-million-dollar contracts with no competition spurred Turner to propose legislation expanding competitive bidding in Mississippi.
For years, the legislation went nowhere. But sometimes bad things happen for a good reason. The recent scandal involving contract kickbacks within the state prison system has changed the attitude at the Legislature. Now Turner’s bill has a fighting chance.
Turner is sure some reforms will pass. “I don’t think people had the stomach for reform that I did until those indictments came down this year,” Turner told me.
“I had a sit down with MDOT (the Mississippi Department of Transportation) two or three weeks ago for about three hours and I asked them for their contracts over the past year and I asked them for the winning bid and the runner-up bid. They told me that would be a problem because a good many times they only had one bid.”
I was amazed. “How can that be,” I asked Rep. Turner. He laughed. “You figure that one out,” he said.
Turns out, Turner explained, MDOT is exempt from the state bidding laws. “They have their own board that does everything over there. They review their own bids. No one else has any oversight over it.
“We have done two years of study because we didn’t want our bill to be punitive. We did not want to shut down government. Yet we absolutely think government should be accountable to the taxpayers of Mississippi. We have worked with the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s office. I have worked with the speaker of the house. I have worked with PEER. I have worked with different agencies. I have worked with DFA, MDOT and anyone else who wanted to come to me with a viable explanation as to why this bill would not work for their agency and the taxpayers of the state of Mississippi.”
Most Mississippians understand the process of competitive bidding for government work. It’s a way to keep government honest by having sealed bids from multiple contractors.
What most Mississippians don’t realize is that most government business is not competitively bid due to loopholes. These loopholes allow officials to direct state business to their cronies, laying the groundwork for corruption and inefficiency.
For instance, in “emergencies,” no competitive bidding is required. Loophole: no definition of what constitutes an emergency. There is an exemption for “sole source” contracts. Loophole: no clear definition of a sole source contract.
According to some excellent reporting by the Clarion-Ledger, the state spends $6.5 billion a year in no-bid contracts. If we presume the lack of bidding increases the cost by 15 percent, then that’s a billion a year in waste, $1,000 per Mississippi household.
Perhaps it is impossible to stop self-dealing politicians from using their office for personal gain. It seems every time we try to crack down with new regulations, these folks find a way around.
Over the years, I have seen politicians and bureaucrats waste millions of taxpayer dollars just to pocket a few thousand in gifts and campaign contributions. I have often wondered if we should just pay politicians so much money that they didn’t have to steal. Unfortunately, that would never go over with the voters.
So we are back to the cat and mouse game. New regulations to make it harder to steal. I give credit to Rep. Turner for making an effort.
It took the arrest of prison commissioner Chris Epps to get the public’s attention. Let’s not waste this momentum.
I had suspicions about the Mississippi Department of Corrections when I visited Parchman with Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill a couple of years ago.
Judge Weill commendably felt he should see firsthand the prison to which he often had to send criminals. He asked me to go along since I am a journalist and a good friend.
I couldn’t believe the roadblocks MDOC erected to prevent our visit. The MDOC staff treated us like pariahs. I have rarely witnessed such rudeness, arrogance or secrecy.
Nevertheless we prevailed and did visit. Looking back, I realize several guards and employees were subtly dropping hints to me that I failed to pick up on. Like the rest of the state, I felt that Epps was one of the good guys and didn’t pursue the leads.
One guard was explaining the full body scanner. “How do so many prisoners get in trouble for contraband when you have full body scanners for visitors?” I asked. The guard gave me a long smile and said, “You would have to take that up with the commissioner.”
Life goes on and new laws will generate new loopholes. But we have to try. About 500 new bills are still alive. Five hundred. In just one year in a state that already has millions of words of code. Maybe we should have a requirement that for every new law we pass we have to delete an old one.
It’s easy to criticize the Legislature with all its self-dealing and grandstanding. But there are good guys too, like Rep. Jerry Turner. Not sure about the other 499 bills, but let’s hope his bill becomes law.
Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]