Coming soon: A more transparent Nevada
Nevada citizens and state officials both will soon know a good deal more about how Silver State government is spending taxpayer dollars.
Beginning October 6, all State of Nevada employees, to procure goods or services for their department from private vendors, must first fill out and sign highly taxpayer-friendly summaries of the contracts they are proposing.
By early next year, say state officials, the contract summaries will be a functional part of the Nevada Executive Budget System, and also — through the state open-records law — available to the public.
TransparentNevada.com, an open-government website sponsored by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, has committed to aggregate the contract summaries and publish them online.
The change to the state budgeting process is part of the Open Government Initiative announced by the administration of Governor Jim Gibbons in March 2008.
Not only the basic facts of the contracts — name of agency, name of contractor, source of funds to pay the contractor, etc. — must be provided by state employees. Each purchase must also be justified, with an explanation of:
- What conditions require that this particular work be done,
- Why state employees are not able to do the work,
- Whether or not quotes or proposals have been solicited, and
- Why this particular contractor was chosen, rather than others.
Other questions on the contract summary include:
- Is the contractor a consultant (providing information, an opinion or advice for a fee)?
- Is the contractor a current employee of the State of Nevada?
- Was the contractor employed by the State of Nevada within the past year?
- Is the contractor currently employed by any of Nevada's political subdivisions or by any other government?
- And, for contracts over $25,000 per fiscal year, "Is the contractor currently involved in litigation with the State of Nevada?"
To be completed, the contract summary must also provide:
- The name and phone number of the state employee charged with monitoring performance under the contract,
- The name and signature of the state manager approving the contract, and
- The signature of the agency head.
Should any state employee not submit the electronic form with every slot filled out, says state Purchasing Administrator Greg Smith, the employee's spending proposal will go nowhere. That's because the contract summary is on the "front end" of the spending process, he explained.
The system now being replaced — in operation since 2003 — asks for the report on the "back end," after the letting of a contract, Smith said. That system was instituted under former Department of Administration head John "Perry" Comeaux, during the Kenny Guinn administration.
The weakness of executive-branch oversight on spending had become especially apparent when then-governor Guinn asked once at a Board of Examiners meeting, "How many contracts does the state have with IBM?"
Because the State of Nevada at the time had no central database of contract information, it took about two weeks of checking with different departments before the purchasing division could give the governor an answer, said Smith.
A major drawback of that system was that it has required many hours of wasteful "baby-sitting" of tardy state employees by purchasing division staff, he said.
While most state employees would get their contract-description reports in promptly, he said, another 10 or 15 percent would do so after a reminder from purchasing-division staff. But some state employees would have to be contacted again and again, and even then would not complete the contract descriptions.
Today, some state agencies still have significant backlogs and are working madly to catch up before January, said Smith. That is when the new system is scheduled to be in operation for the State Board of Examiners, which according to state law must approve "every claim for payment from the State Treasury." The governor, secretary of state and attorney general make up the board.
Now the pressure on state agencies to get their contract summaries up to date is real, says Smith, because if a previous contract is up for extension or a change order, but no summary of that contract is in the system, the board won't be able to pay it.
Smith noted that the new "front-in" process is part of Gov. Gibbons' Open Government Initiative, announced March 18, 2008. He said the administration lobbied the Nevada Legislature's Interim Finance Committee in the summer of 2008 to get permission to move some funds around, allowing development of the new approach.
In recent years NPRI has been a driving force in the push for open government in Nevada. In addition to hosting TransparentNevada as a public service, the Institute has repeatedly highlighted the need for greater government transparency, has released a detailed report on wasteful government spending in Nevada, and has published the findings of its in-depth investigation into the casual financial practices of the taxpayer-funded Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The Institute has also been active in multiple other government-transparency efforts.
Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.