- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho officials say the state’s contracting system has improved under newly implemented reforms, but they are now urging lawmakers to consider clarifying legally confusing language within the state’s 40-year-old purchasing laws.

Earlier this year, a group of state lawmakers persuaded the Idaho Legislature to increase training about purchasing rules and adopt ethics guidelines for drafting contracts. That same legislative interim committee hopes to finalize a second round of recommendations for the 2017 legislative session.

The group met Monday to discuss how the state should handle voided contracts. In 2015, a district judge voided a $60 million contract that provided broadband access in public schools - causing increased scrutiny of the state’s procurement system.

The judge determined state officials violated Idaho procurement laws by amending the contract after it had been awarded. Officials are divided over whether the state should demand that the two vendors return millions paid by Idaho under the illegal contract. The vendors have filed a federal lawsuit to settle the dispute.

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the legislative group that current language in the law creates both a “sword and shield” - meaning it focuses primarily on protecting taxpayer money while also providing a harsh punishment to vendors in situations where they might have performed good faith services.

“I think it’s solvable, but I think we need to be very careful with the words we choose and we have to be careful with the words we define,” Kane said.

Other possible reforms the group considered Monday were addressing a new appeals process, consolidating local county or city contracts with statewide purchases and finding better ways to oversee the state’s most expensive and important contracts.

“The more visibility we can get on high-risk contracts the better,” said Sarah Hilderbrand, who heads the state’s Division of Purchasing.

No decisions were made. The legislative group will continue to meet over the next few months.

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