State Politics

Nelson bill seeks stronger oversight of state contracts

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. on opening day of the Legislature.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. on opening day of the Legislature. Star-Telegram archive

After a controversy that erupted late last year about a no-bid deal at the Health and Human Services Commission, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, filed a bill Monday that seeks to strengthen oversight of state contracting.

The legislation, Senate Bill 353, would require an authority figure in a state agency to sign off on any contract valued at more than $1 million. It would also require public disclosure of all no-bid contracts, contract training programs with a focus on ethics, and the disclosure of any potential conflict of interests for agency employees involved in contracting.

“We need to make sure that contracts are awarded fairly and monitored carefully,” Nelson, chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. “There is no room for favoritism” when taxpayer dollars are involved.

The commission has been criticized for awarding a $110 million contract for Medicaid fraud detection software to 21st Century Technologies, also known as 21CT, outside the competitive bidding process. The commission canceled the deal after questions arose about ties between the agency’s former chief counsel, Jack Stick, and the company.

The growing inquiry has led to the resignations of Stick and Doug Wilson, the commission’s inspector general, who stepped down after then-Gov. Rick Perry demanded his resignation.

Gov. Greg Abbott has created an independent “strike force” to review the commission, specifically how it awards contracts to private vendors. The state auditor is also reviewing the agency, as is the state Public Integrity Unit.

Nelson said she will also seek to tighten contracting requirements for state health agencies as part of “sunset” legislation related to the agencies’ future. She is chairwoman of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the operation and efficiency of state agencies. The state’s health agencies are now under sunset review.

“At best, grave mistakes were made,” Nelson wrote this month in The Texas Tribune’s TribTalk, referring to allegations of contracting abuse at state health agencies. “At worst, laws were broken.”