Lawmakers say discouraging dialogue between contractors, agency officials was never objective of SB 20
Thousands of bills go through each session of the Texas Legislature. Some are subject to interpretation. Unfortunately, some are also subject to misinterpretation.
Part of Senate Bill 20 from the 84th Texas Legislature falls on the side of misinterpretation. The objective of the legislation, as outlined in the statement of intent in the bill analysis accompanying the bill, was a noble one – “reform state agency contracting by clarifying accountability, increasing transparency and ensuring a fair competitive process.”
This bill from the 84th session sought to emphasize the need for agencies’ focus on their contracting processes following an isolated contracting incident within a state agency by seeking more transparency in the contracting process and proposing other steps that would result in impartial competitive contracting practices at all state agencies.
SB 20 was the Legislature’s way of attempting to create uniformity and sound, ethical procedures in contracting practices across all state agencies. Unexpected consequences, however, resulted from misinterpretation of the bill. And now the author of SB 20, Sen. Jane Nelson, and the House sponsor, Rep. Four Price, are attempting to clarify the intent of the bill to alleviate any misconceptions among vendors and state agency officials.
“It is my goal to continue promoting an open line of communication between agencies and the private sector, ensuring that state contracting remains open, accountable and competitive,” Nelson said in a statement to the Texas Government Insider.
In a letter delivered to all Texas state agency executive directors, Nelson and Price noted that since SB 20 was signed into law, many state agencies have adopted new rules, policies or procedures that severely inhibit agency employees from communicating with the vendor community regarding contracting opportunities. In fact, according to the two lawmakers, many agencies are now “enforcing a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to communicating with vendors, even outside of the formal proposal process.”
“The goal of reforms passed last session is to ensure that the state obtains the most workable products and services at the best costs,” said Price in a statement. “Open and fair procurement and contracting processes are essential to meeting that goal. I look forward to further progress on such fiscal reforms with the taxpayer in mind.”
Noting the importance of dialogue between agency officials and vendors, Nelson and Price said such communication should not only be allowed, but encouraged. “We believe that early, frequent and constructive dialogue, while adhering to appropriate conflict of interest and ethics statutes and rules, can lead to better outcomes for state contracting,” they wrote in the letter. The two said it was not their intent in the bill to limit or prohibit appropriate and ethical interaction among agency employees and vendors outside a formal procurement period.
Both agency employees and the vendor community have expressed their gratitude to Nelson and Price for reinforcing their message in the intent of the law – that there should be no prohibitions against interaction among vendors and agency representatives except when they are involved in the procurement process.
Hearing from vendors regarding current industry capabilities and learning about the specific needs of government agencies promotes competition among service and solutions providers, which Nelson and Price say is of great importance in complex, high-risk projects.