State Politics

Bills let some sheriffs skip rules for buying food

The Senate last week gave final nods to a trio of local bills that would afford certain county sheriffs the power to purchase food for detention centers without normal bidding procedure.

As in earlier debates on the bills, a number of lawmakers expressed worry that the change would lead to abuse. Proponents say the intent is simply to give local vendors a hand up with contracts. The majority of lawmakers rejected a proposed amendment that would have required sheriffs to advertise those local opportunities in newspapers or on websites.

“What is wrong with doing that? I just can’t understand it,” said Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, who floated the idea. Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, sided with Clark, saying the advertising requirement would bring more local businesses to the table and reduce costs through competition. Without it, sheriffs could favor friends for contracts, he said.

“Let’s call this bill what it is,” said Ford. “This is a gateway back to the good ol’ boy network.” The bills’ supporters continued to say they benefit local vendors, who could offer detention centers better products at cheaper rates – ultimately a plus for the taxpayers. Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, said the bills, which are local, came at the request of county commissioners.

As passed, they included 30 counties across the state, including Wake and Orange.

Proponents said that local food products, such as farm produce, may spoil during an advertising period. And Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, called advertising a piling on of burdens. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about how much that’s costing (governments) just to advertise the meetings they’re holding,” he said.

If the bills lead to suspected favoritism deals, voters can toss the sheriffs in question, said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, who noted during floor debate the day prior that school districts already have the bidding exemption. “I think the people can decide if it was being abused,” he said.

Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, noted the bills don’t include the word “local” anywhere. As they would free sheriffs from usual bidding requirements that include proposals from national vendors, Stein suggested they could grant authority for dealmaking well beyond a local scope.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, shot back that it gives sheriffs the power to buy “as they choose” and that he supports that concept for its potential to reduce costs. He noted he hadn’t read the bill. “I couldn’t tell you what the words say, but I know what it does,” said Tillman. House Bills 58 and 236 were passed and enrolled. An amendment to House Bill 312 to add more counties to the exemption will return to the House for concurrence.

Budget planning

The state’s budget director is asking government department heads to identify all functions vital to “health, safety and well-being” – areas that need coverage with or without a state budget.

Right now, state government is running on a post-deadline backup plan that essentially extends last year’s budget levels through Aug. 14, ideally enough time for the legislature to send Gov. Pat McCrory a new budget for signing.

But McCrory’s budget director, Lee Roberts, said good plans were lacking in the event the state’s spending authority expired. “We fully expect that the 2015-17 biennial budget – as well as subsequent biennial appropriations – will be enacted without a lapse in budget authority,” Roberts wrote in a Tuesday memo to department heads.

“Nevertheless, prudent fiscal governance obligates us to ensure the State has contingency plans in place for the continuation of critical government operations should there be a lapse in state or federal budget authority.” The plan is to identify the minimum functions and services needed for immediate response in public safety and catastrophic loss avoidance.

“This includes the number of personnel required to perform these functions at the critical level, as well as administrative staff that support those critical functions,” he wrote.

The memo gives a July 27 deadline for department heads to submit proposals, which would be consolidated into a statewide contingency plan. Roberts later said the memo places no doubt on the legislature’s ability to pass a budget before the continuing resolution expires on Aug. 14. “There is plenty of time for the (General Assembly) to complete its work,” he said.

Benjamin Brown