SALT LAKE CITY — An interim legislative committee backed a bill Wednesday mandating the Utah Department of Transportation get approval for future settlements like the $13 million paid out to a losing bidder on the controversial I-15 contract.
The bill would require the governor to sign off on settlements of more than $100,000. The Transportation Commission also must approve deals of more than $500,000, and the Legislative Management Committee gets involved, too, if the amount totals more than $1 million.
"I think the public, in my opinion, expects transparency and openness," said Rep. Julie Fisher, R- Fruit Heights, the sponsor of the bill and the House chairwoman of the Transportation Interim Committee. "In the case of the settlement, I don’t feel we had that."
UDOT quietly settled with the second-place bidder on the $1.7 billion I-15 re-construction project through Utah County in mid-January. But the settlement did not become public until September.
That's when questions were being raised about the influence of tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from members of the winning bid team to Gov. Gary Herbert.
Fisher's bill — and another being drafted for the 2011 Legislature by Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem — would, in effect, lift UDOT's years-old exemption from a law requiring state agencies to seek approval for hefty settlements.
When the $13 million settlement became public, the governor ordered an audit of UDOT and signed an executive order requiring any settlements of more than $100,000 to come to him for approval.
UDOT Deputy Director Carols Braceras told the committee the agency's budget already was controlled by the transportation commission. "This is not an open checkbook by any means," Braceras said.
But Braceras said the thresholds proposed in the bill "are levels that the department is comfortable we can work in." He said the money for the settlement came out of the contingency funds set aside on the I-15 project.
The committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the 2011 Legislature with a recommendation for approval.