Sunday column: Following the niceties to keep JLL inquiry alive

A group of state legislators plan to file a bill that would knock two years off the state Department of General Services’ legal lifespan because of questions about the handling of a contract for management of state buildings by Jones Lang LaSalle.

In doing so, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate Government Operations Committees stressed that they weren’t really interested in terminating the existence — or “sunsettting” — of a major arm of state government’s executive branch.

They were just following what House Government Operations Vice Chairman Rep. John Ragan called “legislative niceties” to ensure that the proper procedural steps were taken to hold a special meeting of the House and Senate panels during this year’s session devoted to the Jones Lang LaSalle arrangement and other contracts through the new state procurement system.

“This is not an intent to kill the agency,” Ragan told General Services Commissioner Bob Oglesby and other department officials on hand at the meeting, adding the lawmakers do not wish to be seen as launching “a Spanish Inquisition.”

The move represents another somewhat hesitant step by the Legislature’s Republican supermajority toward asserting a degree of independence from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration, mostly because of the JLL deal.

In another December development, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, diplomatically and mostly in closed-door meetings with administration officials prior to a State Building Commission meeting, prodded General Services into dropping plans for a $5.7 million expansion of the JLL contract.

That came after Republican Comptroller Justin Wilson’s staff issued a November report that sharply criticized some aspects of the contract, notably an “organizational conflict of interest” in setting things up so that JLL profits from the recommendations it was paid to make in management of state buildings.

At the joint meeting of Government Operations subcommittees, Sen. Mike Bell explained those legislative niceties. The Department of General Services does not officially “sunset” until 2017. But to give the two legislative committees appropriate jurisdiction for a special meeting, Bell said he will file the bill to move the termination date up to 2015. .

Prior to the unanimous vote for a special JLL inquiry, a focal point of discussion was another critical finding of the comptroller’s report questioning whether rules were followed in awarding the original $1 million contract to JLL in 2011 for a review of state buildings, then expanding it via amendments to encompass about $100 million in state spending.

Oglesby and other department officials disputed the comptroller’s findings and adamantly denied any wrongdoing. They explained there was a 10-page “attachment” memo to the original contract — distributed to legislators at the meeting, apparently for the first time — that showed everything in subsequent expansion amendments was either anticipated or a “logical extension” of the original deal. The multi-million-dollar expansions weren’t specifically set out, they said, because $1 million was all that had been approved by the Legislature at the time.

“Your logic poses some challenges,” said Rep. Joe Carr at one point, perhaps the most critical remark by a Republican during the December gathering.

The expansion funding , buried in the mammoth state budget bill, was approved a year later. There was apparently never a legislative hearing on the matter, though the expansion amendments were all duly approved by the Building Commission, where Harwell and Ramsey are members — along with Wilson.

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle said the maneuvers effectively committed the state to $100 million in spending and a major overhaul of public policy in building management without any input from the Legislature. The administration attitude in 2011, he said, could be translated as, “We know we’re going to spend the money but we’re not going to tell you we’re spending the money.” No Republican disagreed.

“We acknowledge it was poorly communicated and explained,” replied Oglesby.

So now the 2011 JLL deal will be back for communicating and explaining in a new year, and maybe the Haslam administration at least has learned a lesson in legislative niceties.