Lawmakers should make following the money easy for procurement contracts

March 15, 2019 10:32 am

Arizona has taken some good steps toward government transparency in recent years, but none would inform taxpayers more than creating a centralized searchable database for all contracts awarded by every governmental entity in the state.

While the state operates an online database of contracts for state agencies, there is no such clearinghouse for contracts awarded by other governmental subdivisions.

Take, for instance, school district procurement awards, something I’ve had experience researching and analyzing. In the course of reporting on and overseeing a six-month investigation into the contracts awarded to construction and architecture firms that gave heavily to school district bond campaigns, my colleagues at the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and KJZZ quickly realized how difficult it would be to gather information about all of those contracts.

Because each school district is governed independently, the only way to get copies of those contracts is to request them from each and every school district – and there are more than 200 of them.

So, what was a squad of industrious investigative journalists to do? We turned to an equally industrious media company that provides news and data to the construction and architecture industry, Arizona Builder’s Exchange. You see, among the data it sells to its clients is an easy-to-use database of all government procurement contracts in Maricopa County – information it gathers by dutifully requesting records from all of the governmental entities, like cities and school districts.

That method is far from perfect. Yes, Arizona public records law requires governmental entities to furnish procurement contracts (and all other records) “promptly,” but the system is far from perfect. Governments can be slow, whether through bureaucratic inertia or malevolence, and some will inevitably choose not to respond at all. The Arizona Ombudsman Office can encourage a governmental entity to comply, but can’t compel it to do anything. Lawsuits can always dislodge records, but they are expensive and most media outlets are unlikely to spend that kind of money – something governments know.

With near-complete school district procurement records in one county, we were able to draw some startling conclusions: Three large architecture firms, three large general contractors and three prominent subcontractors collectively won more than half of all school construction contracts in Maricopa County between 2013 and 2016.

Those same companies also heavily financed ballot measure campaigns for school districts to issue bonds – paid for by higher property taxes – to fund school construction. Overall, construction firms were responsible for more than half of all money raised to support school district bond and override committees during those same years.

As one campaign official told my colleagues Carrie Jung and Evan Wyloge as they reported the story: “It’s no secret that it’s the folks that are going to actually be making money… that contribute to the campaign.”

Imagine how much more taxpayers could learn about how their elected school boards, city councilors, county supervisors and others are spending their money if procurement contracts were easily available in one place.

That’s the kind of sunshine that everyone in Arizona should be able to support.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.