Leaders of Maryland's House of Delegates agreed yesterday to join a Senate investigation into state procurement practices, apparently deciding they are better off inside the tent than out.
"It is something that needed to be done together," said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a Kent County Democrat.
Mr. Mitchell and other House leaders were caught by surprise last month when the Senate announced plans to formally review a series of controversial contract awards. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said citizens had lost confidence in the state's ability to buy goods and services without interference from special interest lobbyists, legislators and others.
Yesterday, Mr. Miller said he welcomed the House's involvement. He said any legislation that might be proposed will be more likely to pass if the two houses work together.
The newly named Joint Task Force on Maryland's Procurement Law is expected to review the awarding of contracts for new lottery computers, for a fleet of MedEvac helicopters, and for management of vehicle exhaust testing stations, among others. Critics have complained that the contracts may have been steered improperly to or away from particular companies.
The two legislative presiding officers plan to address the task force, which has suddenly expanded from 10 to 24 members, at its first meeting next Tuesday.
Two legislative leaders, who spoke on the condition they not be identified, said that the House had little choice but to ask to join the investigation, and the Senate had little choice but to let the delegates in.
"The House and the Senate decided it would be better to have both sides involved or there would be a pre-session battle that would not benefit anybody," said one. "Ultimately, nothing would happen and both sides would be jeered or condemned."
If the House had not joined the probe, the lawmaker said, "the Senate would have been seen as show-boaters and the House would have been seen as doing nothing."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has steadfastly defended his administration's record in procurement matters, said a joint task force made sense.
"With the House participating, he feels there will be a balanced review of the procurement process," said Page W. Boinest, his press secretary. "As he said when this first came up, if the legislature has ideas on changing the procurement process, it is perfectly appropriate for them to offer them. If there is something wrong that needs to be fixed, he wants to know about it."
Speaker Mitchell has a much closer personal and working relationship with the governor than does Mr. Miller. As a result, there was some private speculation yesterday that Mr. Schaefer had asked the speaker to join the investigation. Mr. Mitchell, however, said that was not the case.
"Members of the House couldn't figure out why the Senate was going to do it alone. They called and wanted to know if we were going to get into it," Mr. Mitchell said.
"The full crux of the issue is that procurement hasn't been looked at in so many years, Mike and I both feel a review of the issue is needed. The possibility is that things need to be changed."
Following the Senate lead, Speaker Mitchell appointed the chairmen and vice chairmen of the House's five standing committees.