COVER STORY TRANSPORTATION Shoshana Lew

Shoshana Lew, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, speaks with Kyle Lester, CDOT's director of maintenance and operations, at a news conference on avalanches in 2019.

Highway director Shoshana Lew updated a joint Legislative Audit Committee on the work she's doing to clean up a budget process she inherited at the Colorado Department of Transportation.

It all goes as promised, the average citizen should be able to decipher how the state is spending money on roads, bridges, transit and maintenance, Lew told the committee.

CDOT was the subject of a scathing audit in June, including pointing out gaps and lags that could open the door to fraud.

"We didn't find any actual fraud on the audit," the report's manager, Trey Stanley, told legislators Tuesday morning. "This was about improving controls in that area."

RELATED: LEGISLATURE 2020 | First committee hearing takes on transportation and fraud

Lawmakers have been critical of how the agency spends its money, as the General Assembly struggles each year over whether to put in more money. At the end of Gov. John Hickenlooper's administration, the highway department said it needed $9 billion to keep up with growth in the decade ahead.

The department is adopting the 18 recommendations outlined in the audit, including:

  • Clarifying which money in the budget rolled forward from prior years' budgets.
  • Making sure budgets reflect the status of the work, by updating the spending plan for each project monthly.
  • Ensuring vendor information and estimates line up with their contracts and putting in place measures to detect suspicious activity.
  • Ensuring all work lines up with the master contract.
  • Improving tracking of final close-out on projects and releasing those funds for other projects more timely.
  • Simplifying the budget to increase transparency and understandability. 

Lew said CDOT leaders "feel strongly just not about accepting the 18 recommendations in this audit, but also about what we found to be the spirit of the findings to really do everything we can to ensure the proper controls are in place to provide public confidence in CDOT's spending."

She and legislators talked about a "culture change" in the department's spending, which next year is expected to amount to more than $1.8 billion. Lawmakers will consider the funding requests — though not the actual projects — by the end of the four-month legislative session that began last week.

The state Transportation Commission, appointed by the governor, sets project priorities and oversees the spending.

Next year's proposed budget is available by clicking here.

Members of the Legislative Audit Committee commended Lew for clamping down on CDOT's budget practices.

Reps. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, and Dafna Michaelson-Jenet, D-Commerce City, thanked Lew.

"Your responsiveness to the auditor's recommendations is commendable," Kraft-Tharp said. "... I appreciate your allegiance and dedication."

Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, said the financial matters of CDOT had been so confusing and opaque that it was difficult to tell if one dollar was in the same budget more than once.

He said a budget process "to my eyes, didn't exist at that time."

Lundeen said Tuesday Lew had put "a great plan" in place.

"The question today is: Can we execute?" he said. "How do you sustain it? How do you execute it? How do you drive the cultural change that is apparently required in order to make these wonderful things that are now theoretically completely in place, how do you make it happen so it's sustained and in place a year from now or six months from now instead of just a great idea today?"

Lew said she and other department leaders are attuned to making the audit response "something that's note just a Power Point presentation, but a set of cultural changes that are embedded throughout the department."

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, cited a comment from Lew's presentation.

"It's refreshing to hear a million dollars is no longer a rounding error," she said. "That's a good start."

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