- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 25, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Gov. Bruce Rauner’s technology chief told a House committee Tuesday that spending $208,000 with an executive-assistance firm during a budget crisis is justified because it’s helping the state design a digital system with technology that, in some cases, doesn’t yet exist.

Hardik Bhatt, secretary of the Department of Innovation and Technology, was grilled by the House Appropriations-General Services Committee a day after The Associated Press reported Bhatt has signed contracts for a membership and subscription to information technology councils affiliated with Virginia-based CEB Inc.

Bhatt has signed three one-year contracts for $50,000 memberships in a chief information officer leadership council and he has approved two one-year subscriptions for $29,000 apiece for his agency, known as DoIT.

“We receive access on global research about where the technology is going, how do you deploy this technology, access to the other members who are CIOs,” Bhatt said. “We are trying to build technology which, basically, some of the technologies do not exist at all.”

Bhatt also deflected committee questions about a transfer last fall by defeated GOP Comptroller Leslie Munger of $71 million from general revenue funds - available to pay providers of human services - to accounts from which DoIT operates.

The Republican governor and Democrats who control the Legislature have been in a two-year stalemate over the budget, pushing the state into a $5 billion deficit and $13 billion in overdue bills.

Some of the payments to CEB have been held up for review by Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who acknowledges she must eventually pay them. Committee chairman Rep. Fred Crespo, a Democrat from Hoffman Estates, and the Republican spokesman, Rep. David Harris of Arlington Heights, questioned Bhatt closely on the value of the memberships when other agencies go without.

Democratic Rep. Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego ticked off a list of chief information officer conferences, summits and resources using an internet search.

“Chicago, being a tech city, has a lot of CIO and technological intellect right here that doesn’t cost $200,000,” Kifowit said.

Bhatt dismissed Kifowit’s examples as “general” conferences that don’t provide the “deep research” necessary. And despite powerful Chicago-based corporate technology providers, Bhatt said he cannot consult them because they are potential vendors. Talking to them would violate the state’s purchasing law.

He said CEB networking allows him to discuss what works and what doesn’t with peers and provides for testing of technologies to see if they work for Illinois before it commits to purchasing them.

Rep. Will Guzzardi, a Chicago Democrat, pounded Bhatt over Munger’s transfer of $71 million after she lost a special November election to Mendoza. He said the two special accounts DoIT relies on had $85 million on hand. DoIT chief of staff Tyler Clark told Guzzardi, “We needed the money to pay bills.”

Guzzardi responded, “The state owes a lot of money to a lot of vendors out of” the general revenue fund. “Here, $70 million was put on the front line to go out to the vendors you all have, which makes the line longer.”

Bhatt said he did not ask for the money and pointed out that information technology improvements benefit all state services.

“When I say it’s ‘IT spending,’ it’s IT spending on human services and public safety,” Bhatt said.

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Contact Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/john-oconnor .

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