Jason, Raleah, Jarod and Jarel
The following story illustrates just a single instance, a single example, of how Jason is making a true difference. This story, written by Jason, appeared in the winter of 2013 in publications such as The Edmond Sun Newspaper, The McCarville Report and The Oklahoma Constitution Newspaper.
In writing this story, Jason ran the risk associated with publicly exposed the system by which lobbyists and special interests are determining policy. These policies are most detrimental to the taxpayers. The story is a must read for those who want to know the inner workings of the Capitol.
Jason intends to write more of these types of first-hand articles in the future including an in-depth series on the summer/fall of 2014. You may subscribe to these articles at hd31.org/307
The Sole Spec Story
Let me tell you about this horrific abuse known as sole-source specing.
Voters within a school district or municipality approve a massive bond issue calling for the construction of new buildings without realizing they have just contributed to legalized corruption. Flush with cash, the benefiting governing board hires design professionals to specify which materials are to be used in the new project.
The designers present the governing board with grandiose plans that highlight the inclusion of expensive features. It's all too easy for gullible board members to approve these plans because they are after all spending other people’s money. These designers then draw the specifications so tightly that only one supplier can provide the expensive features. In this way, competition is eliminated and the supplier can charge exponentially more than would otherwise be paid because the competitive bidding process has been eliminated. In some cases, the project designer may actually allow the sales engineer for a product manufacturer to write the specification so that only that one product qualifies.
Sole-source specing has long-term implications. Not only do sole speced items cost more in the first place, but the cost can re-occur. For example, a few years ago, the state issued bonds to build a costly new data center. The data center features what appear to be expensive, sole-source speced lighting fixtures which create a futuristic ambiance in the hallways.
Now those lights are going out and need replacing. However, replacing the lights will cost many thousands of dollars and state officials will be forced to simply allow the lights to die. The taxpayers are still on the hook for the bonds and debt interest that paid for the expensive and soon to be non-functioning lights. Payments will continue to be made on the bonds even though the lights will soon be no longer functional.
After engaging in multiple interviews with construction professionals, I have come to the conclusion that sole-source specing appears to be prevalent within Oklahoma government construction contracting. This really hit home as I realized that one of the local House District 31 school districts recently issued a large number of bonds and was participating in sole-source specing. This wasteful and corrupt practice simply had to be stopped!
I was committed to doing whatever I can to bring this to an end and for that purpose I signed on as the House author of Senate Bill 630. This bill, if approved, was designed to stop much of the sole specing abuse.
You will be happy to know that the bill rapidly advanced through the Legislature and was signed by Governor Fallin on May 7th. We had to win at least three votes in committee, two votes on the floor of the Senate and one vote on the floor of the House to pass the bill. Remarkably, I can only recall one vote against the bill throughout this entire process.
This should have been the end of the story. After all, the bill was signed by the Governor and only one person in the entire legislature voted against the bill.
But something was wrong. Passing this bill was much too easy. The ease with which the bill passed almost made me second guess the need for the bill. Surely all of those who are making money off this terrible practice should have desperately fought us at every turn. Why was it so easy?
I would soon find out.
Apparently the lobbyists and the special interests who were making money off this practice and their lobbyists had fallen asleep at the switch and had completely missed the bill. This is a testament to the fact that we had not issued any showy press release or launched a PR campaign to pass the bill. We had done nothing to unnecessarily bring attention to our effort.
Not long after the Governor signed the bill the special interests realized what had happened. They immediately responded by asking their high powered lobbyists to pass another bill to undo our bill and restore their ability to write the tight specifications which eliminate competition and drive up prices.
Fortunately, there were only a few days left in the legislative session. And, since new bills must be filed at the start of the session they couldn't simply file a new bill. They had to find a way to take over/co-opt an already existing bill. Worse still, they couldn't take over just any bill. They had to find a bill which shared the same subject matter as their proposal. Also problematic, by that late in the year the number of bills which are still alive and viable has greatly dwindled. Even worse, it was going to be extremely hard for them to explain and justify what they were trying to do. What kind of legislator would want to allow this type of corrupt, parasitic proposal into his bill?
At first the lobbyists experienced no success. Legislators simply weren't willing to give up a bill to them. Watching legislators hold strong against this onslaught reminded me of why I have a generally optimistic outlook about the integrity of many of Oklahoma's currently elected state officials.
Then, with just five days left in the session, things changed. The Moore tornado struck. Unbelievably, as the disaster workers were still combing through the ruins, they floated the story that their proposal was necessary to help with the Moore tornado recovery. This has of course turned out to not be true and has to be the single most unscrupulous and disgusting technique I have ever witnessed in an attempt to pass legislation.
Their actions serve as a tutorial 101 about the secretive and dark form of art used by Oklahoma's very best and, in this case, most desperate lobbyists.
First they found a bill which was supposed to give a pay raise to state troopers. Their parasitic proposal wiped out the state trooper pay language and replaced it with their reversal of our reform. They did this in spite of the fact that the trooper pay raise language had little in common with their re-creation of sole spec bidding and could hardly be thought germaine.
So apparently petrified of legislators discovering the intent of their proposal they didn't have the courage to reference our law in the reversal. Normally, when a pre-existing law is being amended, the original law is referenced so the reader can understand the proposal both while it is being voted on and after it has passed.
Their proposal didn't reference or amend ours at all. It simply created a second law which actually looked like a good law on the surface but in reality created a conflict with and reversal of our previously passed reform.
If it had been approved, they clearly counted on their attorneys interpreting the law as the preeminent law of the two because their proposal would go into law after our reform. Traditionally, when two laws conflict, the law which is approved last governs. In this way, I believe they attempted to hide the unconscionable outcome of their proposal from all but the most observant lawmakers as the casual reader would have no clue as to the real intent of their bill.
While these actions may be considered politically savvy in that legislators would not have realized what they were voting on, this terrible “art” of lawmaking has filled state statutes with conflicting provisions. A tyranny of laws results, which benefits those who can afford to hire smart attorneys to navigate through the maze of conflicting statutes, but punishes the average member of the public who has no such luxury.
A majority of the members of a conference committee had to sign the now co-opted bill before it could be forwarded for a vote of the House. Unfortunately, the lobbyists were able to bypass the requirement of a public hearing which applies to most bills before it can be signed. Legislators were asked to sign the proposal without first attending a public hearing, at which time I could have publicly exposed what they were doing.
The lobbyists then told those legislators that their proposal was necessary to assist with the Moore tornado recovery. The tornado had occurred just hours earlier, and this cynical and immediate exploitation of the tornado appears to have proven very effective.
As the session drew to a close, by deploying these and other nuanced tactics which I simply don't have enough room to describe, they successfully convinced the requisite number of legislators to sign the bill.
In explaining why he signed the bill, one of the Legislature's most reform minded members apologetically explained: "Jason, they said it was for Moore and I would have done anything for Moore at that moment."
With this collection of legislative signatures in their custody, it appeared as if their proposal was on the fast track to approval, and all our efforts to stop sole specing would be in vain. They had successfully convinced six Representatives and four Senators to sign their conference committee report.
They filed the report with just over two days left in the session. In years' past, this would have been enough time for them to send the bill to the House and Senate floors for a final vote.
However, this year would be much different.
This year, Speaker T.W. Shannon's plan to reform House rules through the creation of a Calendar Committee had been approved by the House. This new committee serves as the guardian of the House floor agenda. Before an initiative can go before the House for a vote it must first come before the Calendar Committee.
For days, Oklahoma's most powerful lobbyists had gone to war to reverse the reform. Now, with just hours left before the deadline, the pesky Calendar Committee stood in their way. All of their lobbying efforts were ultimately useless: the bill would never get out of Calendar Committee!
This important safeguard provided just enough time to get the word out about what was going on.
As a member of the committee, I was prepared to enter a motion to remove HB 1794 from the agenda. But, I never needed to do so as during the last meetings of the committee, the Majority Floor Leader refused to even place HB 1794 on the slate of eligible bills and no other member of the committee was willing to bring it up for consideration.
This episode highlighted the importance of Shannon's reform. In the last days of session the Calendar Committee plays an extremely important last line of defense against the traditional late-session trickery and represents one of the most, if not the most, important process reforms that I have seen.
Over the past few months, as word has gotten out about our successful effort, it appears as if the practice of sole specing has become much less prevalent. Do you recall how I described the local school district which issued millions in bonds and was attempting to sole spec some of the lighting fixtures? It seems they now reversed course and are allowing competition for that business. It's likely impossible to quantify the actual amount of savings to the taxpayer in the cumulative as a result of the reform but I believe it to be substantial.
These examples of savings are going to be important as first indications show that the special interests have already started preparing a new assault to occur during the next legislative session which starts a little over a month from now. This battle will likely re-occur throughout the spring as they again try to reverse the reform.
I hope Oklahoma's lawmakers will once again do the right thing and take a stand against what I feel to be legalized corruption.
I very much appreciate all of the feedback provided by those who have read this article. I have especially appreciated the first-hand observations and validation from those in the construction industry who have witnessed the abuse and want it stopped. I think these individuals are heros for reporting what was occurring and they are without a doubt the reason for why the reform was successful.
We are dependant on their continual input as we work to end this abuse.
Want to know more? Visit Jason's official site at hd31.org, email at JWMurphey@gmail.com, follow on Twitter at @JWMurphey, or friend on Facebook.