Legislative committee wants UDOT to get approval for future settlements

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Lawmakers were not pleased when they learned about a $13 million settlement to a losing road bidder more than half a year after the fact. Wednesday they moved to change that from ever happening again. A committee backed a bill requiring more transparency.

When news broke about a secretive $13 million payout to settle a potential lawsuit from the second-place bidder on the huge I-15 project, lawmakers said they were blindsided.

Rep. Julie Fisher, R-Fruit Heights, said, "We want transparency and openness. And in the case of this settlement, I don't feel that we had that."

Now, the Interim Transportation Committee is backing Rep. Fisher's bill that would close a loophole and mandate approval for future settlements.

The bill requires the governor to sign off on bid settlements of more than $100,000, the transportation commission on deals of more than $500,000 and the Legislative Management Committee if it tops $1 million --measures one lawmaker says would have answered questions about the $13 million.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said, "Sure would have. It would have added transparency, and that's what this is all about is to add a little more transparency. And there's nothing wrong with transparency in government. Everybody wants to look at what we're doing."

The move comes after a firestorm in the governor's race over questions about the influence of more than $80,000 in campaign donations from members of the winning bid team to Gov. Gary Herbert.

UDOT's deputy chief tells lawmakers the agency will now use a "blind" decision process, in which final decision makers won't know the identity of project bidders.

UDOT Deputy Director Carlos Braceras said, "But there are things we could have improved, and some of those were the perception that influence could have been used to influence the outcome."

He says the agency is comfortable both with the new bill and with how it handled the I-15 bid.

"We weren't trying to hide anything. We were working within our authority," he said.

The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the 2011 Legislature and recommended approval.

After the meeting, Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, a committee member, said he believed the bill would sail through the upcoming session.

"I don't believe this legislation is pointing to the fact that there was anything done wrong. But I do think it shows there was a loophole and we need to change the ways we negotiate these settlements," Jenkins said.

Braceras told reporters this was the first time UDOT had settled a formal bid protest. This was also the largest-ever state roads contract, unusual because it was awarded based not on price, but how much work the bidders pledged to complete.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, is proposing his own bill, which makes similar changes.

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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