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NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's apparent ability to ink no-bid contracts without prior legislative review would end under legislation sponsored by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

The bill states plans to award noncompetitive contract proposals must first come before the General Assembly's Fiscal Review Committee for vetting.

The lawmakers filed the measure in the midst of an ongoing uproar over whether Republican Lee's administration's award of a non-competitive, two-year contract worth $2.53 million to Florida technology firm ClassWallet should have come first before that committee.

ClassWallet is overseeing online payment and application systems for Lee's controversial Education Savings Account program. The program provides tax dollars for low-income parents to send their children to private schools as well as some ancillary expenses such as computers and uniforms.

Legislative critics have questioned why the Education Savings Account contract didn't first go before Fiscal Review.

Now, Sexton and Gardenhire, a vice chairman of Fiscal Review, have their measure, Senate Bill 2715/House Bill 2727. It makes it clear those types of contracts must come quickly before the bipartisan panel comprised of senators and representatives before any agency can take action.

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Read a copy of the Sexton/Gardenhire bill on noncompetitive contracts

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"All requests of the procuring agency to procure goods or services through a noncompetitive contract must be contemporaneously filed with the fiscal review committee of the general assembly, comptroller of the treasury, and the chief procurement officer," the bill says.

Yet another bill provision strengthens existing conflict-of-interest provisions in Tennessee law.

It says "no public officer or employee who is involved in making or administering a contract on behalf of a public agency may be employed by the contractor for twenty-four (24) months from the ending of the contract or one (1) year immediately following departure from employment as the public officer or employee, whichever occurs first."

That applies to the state's chief procurement officer, as well.

Gardenhire said in a Times Free Press interview, "We just think it's appropriate that if any new contracts are let out by an agency, that they come through the Fiscal Review process first. There seemed to be a controversy on the precedent where the governor's Education Savings Account bill contract didn't come through Fiscal Review."

The bill "is an effort to clarify that," he added. "To make sure in the future that no matter what the [contract] is, it comes through the proper process. We're looking to ensure that the process of state government is done in the proper fashion, no matter who the governor is and no matter what the issue is."

Gardenhire, a longtime traditional school voucher supporter, voted against Republican Lee's Education Savings Account bill last year, citing several concerns including what he saw as an unconstitutional provision aimed at excluding undocumented parents of children from participating.

The bill originally applied to five public school districts, including Hamilton County's. But to get the bill through the legislature in 2019, Lee removed Hamilton and two other counties from the bill, making it applicable only to Tennessee's two largest systems, Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools.

Even so, the bill initially stalled on a 49-49 House vote before then-Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, held the tally board open for 40 minutes as he and proponents put the squeeze on reluctant members before passing it on a 50-49 vote.

Both Metro Nashville and Shelby County systems are now suing the state, saying singling them out among the state's 95 counties violates the Tennessee Constitution.

Sexton, R-Crossville, who voted against the voucher-like bill and later was elected to replace Casada as speaker after Casada resigned the post amid multiple controversies, said the reason for his and Gardenhire's bill is "making sure we have a transparency process" for non-bid or sole source contracts.

He said his understanding is that the administration's position is "the no-bid grant application did not have to go through [Fiscal Review] because no one could handle that except the one company."

Asked whether he agreed with that position, Sexton said, "we're still evaluating." He later noted "I think when we looked at it, there's been many times when there's been no-bid contracts approved. So this is not a 'one' scenario, I think there's more and more of that type going, and we'd like to have those types of contracts going before Fiscal Review."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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