Cutting Down on Paper in a Bid to Modernize Local Government in NJ

John Reitmeyer | October 17, 2018 | More Issues
Greater efficiency and savings for taxpayers promised by proponents of a measure ‘that’s really past due’

Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex)
Representatives at all levels of local government in New Jersey are lining up to support legislation that would modernize the process — and cut way down on the paperwork — of bidding for goods and services in the search for the best price for taxpayers.

Municipalities, school boards and county governments would all be able to take full advantage of electronic technology when they collect and review bids from firms seeking to perform services for taxpayers, under a bipartisan measure that was unanimously approved by a key state Senate panel earlier this week.

The backers of the bill say it will make local government more efficient in New Jersey. Nonpartisan legislative analysts have predicted it should save taxpayer money over time since the current procurement process is heavily reliant on the use of paper.

“This is an idea that’s really past due,” said Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), a prime sponsor of the bill.

Would still have to advertise in local newspapers

The measure would continue to require local governments to advertise for goods and services in newspapers that are published in their respective communities, assuaging concerns that were raised when a related bill (with a wider scope) came up for consideration during the tenure of former Gov. Chris Christie.

Although most state agencies already have the ability to collect formal bids from firms seeking to do business with the state via email, state law still generally requires local governments to conduct business with their vendors using a paper-heavy procurement process.

Credit: Doug Waldron/Flickr
The measure that passed the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee earlier this week would update the law to allow municipalities, school boards and county governments to use electronic technology for “the procurement of goods, services, public works construction, and sale of surplus personal and real property.” The bill also calls for the Department of Community Affairs to draft regulations and standards to protect the integrity of the bidding process, which is done on a competitive basis to ensure fairness and to get the best prices for taxpayers.

John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, one of the organizations supporting the bill, said lawmakers in recent years have been finding new ways to make government operate more efficiently by applying new technology. He cited as examples recent laws that have allowed government bills to be paid electronically and public workers to receive paychecks via direct deposit.

“It just modernizes and streamlines the process,” Donnadio said of the electronic-procurement measure.

Saving money

He also said the bill, which the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities endorse, could save money by moving local governments away from the paper-based system that’s currently required. Analysts from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services have agreed, estimating in a recent fiscal note that local governments would realize savings over time as they move away from a paper-heavy system to electronic.

“Although local units may incur increased up-front expenditures associated with developing and implementing the electronic purchasing systems, these potential costs could be offset by savings not achievable through the current public contracting process,” the OLS note said.

Oroho, the bill sponsor, suggested any savings could directly benefit taxpayers because local governments in New Jersey are primarily funded through local property taxes.

“By making the bidding process more transparent and convenient, we can lower the cost and increase competition,” Oroho said.

This week’s Senate committee approval moves the electronic-procurement bill to the full Senate for final consideration. The full Assembly has already approved it unanimously.

Christie and the ‘newspaper revenge bill’

While first-term Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has yet to weigh in publicly on the bill, it would seem to fit in well with one of the main goals he put forward during a recent major address on the state economy. He said he wants to establish “an economy steeped in innovation” in New Jersey that would include having government widely using technology to improve services for taxpayers and relations with the business community.

This marks the second time lawmakers have tried to establish a more modern procurement process for local governments. Their prior effort took place when Christie, a Republican, was in office, but it failed when the former governor decided not to act on the bill before his second term ended, resulting in a pocket veto. Assemblyman Dan Benson (D-Mercer), another prime sponsor, said during a prior legislative hearing that Christie’s lack of action was “inexplicable.”

One potential sticking point that isn’t a part of the bill is an easing of the legal requirement that local governments publicly advertise their bidding opportunities in a local newspaper. That was something that Christie pushed for unsuccessfully during his tenure, ostensibly as a cost-saving measure. But he was also widely believed to support what became known as the “newspaper revenge bill” as a way to also punish newspapers for breaking and covering the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal known as “Bridgegate.”

Paid legal notices are used by local governments to disseminate a wide range of information, and they are a sizable source of revenue for print publications in New Jersey. Lawmakers raised concerns about how the far-reaching measure, favored by Christie, would have impacted those without internet services who rely heavily on the legal notices to inform them about a wide range of government actions — in addition to bid opportunities, including public-meeting notices and government-budget disclosures.

The bill statement for the electronic-procurement legislation specifically says “a local unit using electronic procurement technologies must continue to publish any notices, advertising bids, and requests for proposals required by law to be published in the official newspaper of the local unit.”