Wiener Spice, Flavored Condoms and Other Tales of Procurement

Dec 16, 2015

Even though much of Illinois government is operating without a budget, the state is still looking to spend money. Right now, on Illinois’ procurement website, there are dozens of notices. Reporter Kurt Erickson returns to State of the State for a procurement primer.

TRANSCRIPT: From NPR Illinois, it’s State of the State. I’m Brian Mackey, and the state of the state today is on a buying spree.

SOUNDBITE: "And they ran out of hot dog spice, or wiener spice, as I called it. And they had to go out and try to find some and emergency purchase."

Even though much of Illinois government is operating without a budget, the state is still looking to spend money. Right now, on Illinois’ procurement website, there are dozens of notices.

The Toll Highway Authority needs trucks. The State Police needs lasers to help its crime lab detect fingerprints. And the Secretary of State’s office is looking to buy envelopes — 5,000,000 envelopes — the kind with the little window on the front.

Today on State of the State: procurement. We'll lean over the deepest depths of Illinois’ bureaucracy, and hear how state government sausage is paid for — and how it’s seasoned.

Our guide on this trip is a reporter who’s spent a lot of time exploring procurement in Illinois, and gotten some great stories out of it.

KURT ERICKSON: “Kurt Erickson, Lee Enterprises Newspapers, Springfield Bureau."

I asked Kurt to begin with a definition.

ERICKSON: “Procurement is basically what the state is buying. They’re procuring services, whether it’s paper plates for prisoners or socks for prisoners, or just companies that would do proposals for new license plates."

BRIAN MACKEY: “Literally everything the state spends money on, or most of what the state spends money on in terms of goods and services, goes through this procurement process."

ERICKSON: “Correct. And mainly it’s a bidding process. They have a website that companies can go and see what the state is wanting, and they can go and see if they want to bid on those."

A few years ago, I was trolling the state procurement website. Back then I covered arts and entertainment for the daily newspaper in Springfield. You could often find out who would be playing at the State Fair by looking for the contracts online, rather than waiting for a formal announcement.

But what caught my eye that day was not a concert notice, but a request for a ticket vendor for the Illinois and DuQuoin state fairs. Ticketmaster had long held the contract, and I hated the so-called convenience fees the company tacked on to ticket prices. I was curious to see if anyone could topple the industry’s 800-pound gorilla, so I found myself in a windowless room on the fairgrounds, watching the formal bid opening.

Now, I’m going to back up here, because I can hear your eyes beginning to glaze over. I realize that at first glance, studying procurement might seem about as interesting as the terms of service agreement on your cell phone.

But I find this stuff fascinating. It’s like taking apart a machine to see how it works, except instead of a $35 stereo receiver, it’s a $35 billion state government.

You know that saying, that a person’s eyes are a window to his soul? Well procurement is a window into the soul of state government.

ERICKSON: “Yeah, exactly. A lot of people think it’s wonky that I would spend time looking at the procurement website, but I actually think it’s the most base level of state government. This is where you’re money is being spent. Not all of it, but you can see whether there’s waste — or just how state government is operating. It’s pretty interesting."

MACKEY: “Do you remember how you first came to make it part of your routine to look at the procurement website? … Did you have your first great story that was based on procurement documents?"

ERICKSON: “A couple of years ago, I just made it a point to start looking at all the different state websites, and I made a list of all these things I wanted to check out. And at the time, the state was putting a lot more things online, whether it’s meeting notices or the General Assembly. I came in at a time when that was all on paper. So when they started putting it up online, I just tried to make it sort of like a cop walks a beat. I’d go to each website and check in and see what was going on. The procurement website started to yield a lot of stories that nobody else was doing. So it made me look like I was getting big scoops when I was just reporting on something that was already out there."

ERICKSON: “I’ve also learned a lot in checking out the procurement code. The state Department of Corrections makes hot dogs for all the inmates. And they ran out of hot dog spice, or wiener spice, as I called it. And they had to go out and try to find some in an emergency purchase. And in their explanation of why they had to go around the bidding process, they said if the hot dogs don’t taste right, the inmates could think they’re being poisoned, and it could cause a riot. And I thought that was really interesting that, here you’ve got this hot dog spices that are avoiding a potential riot. I don’t know if it would really get that bad, but that’s how they explained it."

Back on the state fairgrounds, the bid opening for the new ticketing system was getting underway. As I wrote at the time, there were three proposals: “One came in a small, soft-sided envelope, another was in a slightly larger box, the third was in a cardboard box big enough to hold a small television set."

Those three companies were WizTix, eTix and Ticketmaster. It was immediately apparent that the gorilla was likely to win. You see, potential vendors have to answer a series of questions about how much the good or service will cost Illinois residents. As I wrote at the time: "WizTix … dutifully answered every question, cataloguing the cost of equipment to the state” — a few thousand here, several hundred there. "It was all so earnest, but the likely futility of the smaller player became apparent when the bids of the bigger companies — eTix and Ticketmaster — answered the same list of costs with zero, zero, zero, zero."

ERICKSON: “So many rules have been implements that small companies that don’t have big staffs of paperwork pushers — the boilerplate that they have to go through, and sign all the papers, and register here, and make sure they’re not giving campaign contributions there — a lot of smaller companies just say, ‘Forget it. I can’t spend the time just to get this $15,000 (or) $20,000 contract."

Ticketmaster did win that contract. It saved taxpayers over the potential cost from the other two companies. As for concertgoers, who end up generating profits for Ticketmaster with so-called convenience fees — well, that’s a topic for another day.

MACKEY: “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen procured? Or that the state had to put out a bid for?"

ERICKSON: “The most interesting one I saw — crazy, I don’t know — but the one that caught my eye was the flavored and colored condoms that the Department of Public Health was trying to purchase. And again, I learn things from these (notices): The reason they were trying to have colored and flavored condoms was because maybe it would promote more usage of this to combat STDs. In the end … after we did stories about it, they’re now just bidding out plain, regular old condoms."

That’s it for this episode of State of the State, number 17.

Unfortunately, that’s also it for Kurt's career as an Illinois reporter.

MACKEY: “So you’re going to Missouri to be in the Statehouse bureau of the (St. Louis) Post-Dispatch. Congratulations."

ERICKSON: “Thanks, yeah. And I’ve already identified the Missouri procurement website."

MACKEY: “Well we’ll miss you here, Kurt. Thanks for your time."

You know, this wasn’t Erickson’s first time on State of the State. He and I talked about why we think there ought to be an official portrait of Rod Blagojevich in the Capitol Building. That was in episode 9 of the show, which you can find — along with all past episodes — at WUIS.org.

Thanks for listening. I’m Brian Mackey.

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Music: "Jester" and "Kitten" by Podington Bear. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-3.0 license, via WFMU's Free Music Archive. Also "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash.