Why Is Procurement Such a Big Deal?


There is probably no more boring word in the English language than procurement. And yet, if you pay taxes, it should be one of the most important words in the language, too.

In government, procurement is the purchasing of goods or services, and its importance is summed up in this question: Who has authority to use the public checkbook to pay for the things that make government run?

Indeed, so crucial is the answer to that question that several members of the South Carolina Senate recently voted against an otherwise popular restructuring bill on the grounds that the bill failed to remove procurement authority from the legislature. An earlier version of the bill had placed that authority under the governor, but in the end the Senate Finance Committee, under the influence and chairmanship of Senator Leatherman, put it back under a renamed Budget and Control Board.

The senators’ statement read, in part:

Many who voted “aye” today said they did so because the bill “moves the ball forward” and “it is better than doing nothing.” We disagree. The goal of restructuring in South Carolina is, or at least ought to be, truly restoring a constitutional separation of powers and, in particular, lessening the stranglehold over all three branches of state government now exercised by the General Assembly, a phenomenon unique to South Carolina and earning it the sobriquet “the Legislative State.”

It’s not every day that senators place a statement in the Senate Journal that (a) is this well written and (b) makes such a direct and powerful case that the legislature has a “stranglehold” on state government.

So … why is procurement such a big deal?

Because government by itself has no ability to build a road or construct a building. It has to pay someone to do those things. There is no government department tasked with putting down water pipes or putting up telephone wires; government, using your money, pays outside companies to do those things. A government building will have no computers in it unless it buys them from an outside source. The Highway Patrol does not build its own cars; it purchases them from Ford or GM. And SLED doesn’t build the equipment in its crime lab; it buys that equipment.

Giving government officials power to choose which companies to contract with is never something to take lightly – the potential for corruption is always there. But if we’re going to have a government at all, someone’s got to have authority to make those decisions, and if the decisions are suspect, the public and media can call attention to them and hold the offending officeholder accountable.

But in South Carolina, there is no one officeholder responsible for procurement. There are five, sort of – the members of the Budget and Control Board – and the board itself is heavily influenced by the legislature.

In effect, that means state government, with the many billions of dollars at its disposal, has the power to give business to companies that state lawmakers happen to like for one reason or another. The state can contract with businesses owned by family members of lawmakers, friends of lawmakers, or lawmakers’ campaign donors – and even if one of these improper financial relationships were found out, who could be held accountable? The Budget and Control Board? Its members don’t personally okay every contract. The board’s executive director? Who’s that?

You get the point.

On the other hand, if procurement authority were placed in the executive branch – where it is in the vast majority of the other 49 states – any improper favors would be the responsibility of one person: the governor. That would motivate the governor to ensure that the state authorize no suspicious-looking contracts. A South Carolina governor, after all, may be sorely tempted to issue a state contract to a sibling or a friend or political ally, but would it be worth risking his or her political career?

Probably not.

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