A provision, tucked in a bill awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott's signature, aimed at reducing conflicts of interest in state contracting is drawing concerns among state employees, particularly at the Texas Department of Transportation.
Senate Bill 20, a sweeping contracting reform bill from Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would bar state employees who work on procuring or negotiating a contract with a private vendor from working for that vendor for two years after leaving the agency. The so-called revolving door provision was part of a broad suite of contracting reforms that lawmakers approved this session to address fears about conflicts of interest at state agencies that negotiate billions of dollars in new contracts each year.
While the provision did not spark much public debate while working its way through the Senate and House, some agency employees and groups privately raised concerns that it could make state employment less attractive, particularly for employees who routinely work on multiple contracts and could find themselves barred from a job at dozens of companies in the industry in which they have the most experience.
“I have already heard that some in the department are concerned about this provision and the impact it could have on their future employability,” TxDOT Executive Director Joe Weber wrote in an email to TxDOT staff Tuesday morning. “I want you to know that we have already begun to look at changes in our procedures that will fully comply with this important bill, while reducing the number of our employees from participation that may jeopardize post-TxDOT employment.”
Weber said he didn’t intend for the email to be viewed as critical of SB 20.
“SB 20 as it's written and interpreted, I think is a good bill,” Weber said. “I think what’s important for TxDOT is that the workforce understands what it says.”
Nelson maintains that the provision is needed for state government.
"It's not appropriate for a person to work on a contract as a state employee and then go work for the company that is awarded the bid,” Nelson said in a statement.
Weber said he hoped to assuage concerns by TxDOT workers about the provision’s impact. He noted in the email that TxDOT did not believe the provision applied to contracts executed before Sept 1., the day the measure is set to go into effect unless Abbott vetoes it.
“It does allow us two or three months to organize and restructure whatever we need to do, protect those who need to be protected if they have plans, and make them aware of what the law is,” Weber said.
TxDOT’s engineers may be among those who find the provision unfairly restrictive, said Steve Stagner, president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Texas.
“The end result of this will be to make it harder to get knowledgeable people to work in the procurement and contracting area, which undercuts the overall intent of the bill,” Stagner said.
Abbott has not yet signed SB 20 but has signaled that he intends to. At a ceremony in Dallas on Tuesday in which he touted transportation-related successes during the session, Abbott said he has no concerns about TxDOT’s ability to thrive under the revolving door provision.
“I am confident that TxDOT will be able to recruit and maintain the top quality of employees that are needed, while at the same time, Texas will be able to achieve integrity in the process,” Abbott said. “The reality is without integrity, you have nothing. We want to ensure both integrity and the appearance of integrity, and that is what this law helps achieve.”
In her original proposal, Nelson had planned to make violations of the revolving door provision a Class A misdemeanor. In the House, the bill’s sponsor, Amarillo Republican Four Price, stripped out the provision after hearing concerns that it was “unfairly penalizing state workers.”
The provision re-emerged in a compromise version of the bill but without the criminal penalty. Agencies may create their own sanctions as they develop rules to implement the provision.
Weber told employees Tuesday that he has directed TxDOT’s general counsel to expedite development of the agency’s rules for that provision.
“Once those proposed rules are drafted, I will share them with you,” Weber wrote. “And those rules, just like any rules that TxDOT adopts, will have a comment period.”
Reporter Jim Malewitz contributed to this story.