At the Capitol This Week, Anti-Islamic Protests and a Call for Contract Reform

Jan 30, 2015

This was supposed to be a fairly quiet week at the Legislature.

For the seventh session in a row, Muslim groups from across the state came to Austin for their regular lobby day, just like the lobby day for doctors, or bikers, or any special interest group. Only this time they were met by about 25 protesters, who yelled and held signs with anti-Islamic slogans and briefly took hold of the mic during speeches.

Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, joined the fray by instructing her staff to ask any Muslims who came into her office if they would “renounce Islamic terrorist groups and announce allegiance to America and our laws.” The council on American-Islamic relations has already sent a letter to House Speaker Joe Straus to see if those instructions violate House ethics rules.

The legislature also broached another currently controversial topic: the Texas Health & Human Services Commission (HHSC).

Last fall, questions started bubbling up around a $20 million contract awarded by the agency to a new software vendor called 21CT.  The company had gone through an initial competitive process to be placed in a catalog of vendors that the government could then pick from.

Terri Langford of the Texas Tribune, KUT’s political reporting partner, has been following the story. In fact you can check out her tumblr here, on which she breaks down the details of the HHSC.

Langford: What happened in this particular instance is that HHSC went ahead and picked 21CT from the catalog and didn’t bid it out. They didn’t have to, but it’s recommended for a contract this large that they should have. And so since that contract was first signed in 2012, there have slowly been some questions raised about how did they get it? Mostly coming from the vendor community. There are a lot of rivals out there, as there are with any kind of contractors, and a lot of people asking questions why them?

KUT: Just on the surface when you talk about the idea that vendors are complaining about this and that they did have the right to no-bid the contract; it sounds a little bit like maybe small potatoes. What raised it above that level?

Langford: Everyone’s hearing about this because there were no competitors once they were selected off that catalog. And it was on track to get a $90 million extension – that’s huge. The whole deal worth $110 million. So that raised a lot of red flags for lawmakers, reporters, people were asking questions, how do you just go in and get a $110 million deal? People are kind of drilling down on this because this one is so easy to dissect that it’s getting a lot of attention.

KUT: So we’ve got ongoing investigations, there have been a couple of calls for the HHSC commissioner, Kyle Janek, to resign, so more political fallout could come. Is this something that has reached an importance beyond the world of politics within how HHSC is run or how the people of Texas receive their care?

Langford: What we’re seeing are bigger questions raised about the contracting process. And I think that if we’re looking back, this summer, at what will happen, I think you’re going to see some reforms on that. And the contracting business as we see it now in Texas is not going to look the same a year from now.

As if Langford knew what was about to happen, just a couple of hours after this interview, Gov. Greg Abbott sent out a press release calling for contract reform legislation this session.