New Budgets Allow More Contracts in MD, But Who Gets Them?

As the federal and several state governments take measures to stimulate the still weak economy, much of the attention has been devoted to public infrastructure projects. Channeling the ideas of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, President Barack Obama has decided to create jobs by investing in the country’s crumbling infrastructure. His projects are funding the maintenance and rebuilding of bridges, roads, pipelines, and even national monuments. Many state governments have joined in the spirit by investing in new building construction and maintenance. However, once the decision to invest is made, the government must decide who will get the jobs created by the project – a very political process. To do so, states have established procurement laws that instruct the executive administration, as it gives these contracts out to private employers.

Maryland has established procurement laws, but a new bill backed by the Democratic Congress and Governor would amend these laws so that the executive administration has more freedom in handing out big infrastructure contracts. Critics of the bill that would amend the procurement laws argue that this is another corrupt move by the Governor so that he can hand the contracts to his political supporters. They argue that the bill is plagued with corruption because it gives the Governor’s supporters a new, more favorable set of rules to follow than the rest of the population.

One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is that it would apply retroactively to contracts already handed down. Because the Governor’s administration is facing litigation on breaking current procurement law, the bill is also seen as a quick fix for the Governor. Some also argue that the bill would make it harder to track how the administration is spending taxpayer dollars. On the other hand, supporters of the bill urge that its passage would expedite the procurement process and allow for a faster recovery of the job market.

Overall, the bill is part of a commonly over-played political battle. Those in power do something that protects their political interests and argue that it is for the public good. In turn, those out of power argue that the action is only motivated by the political benefits and that it, in fact, hurts the public. The debate will undoubtedly continue to follow this pattern, but the truth of the matter is that both political parties have found themselves on both sides of the argument.

The reality in Maryland is that the Governor is not breaking the law but looking to change it, so his actions are legal and not corrupt in this sense. The ability or likelihood to change the law is won in elections, and those who win elections also win the right to amend, eliminate, and create law. While Democrats are doing this in Maryland, Republicans are doing the same thing in Tennessee around other issues like gun control.

For the public, the arguments become a question of priority among the issues. For example, in the Maryland procurement law battle, the public must weigh job creation against government transparency and support or attack the law based on the priority each issue takes. At this point, the country suffers from a very weak job market. In recent polls, most people say that the economy is the most important issue facing the country. Given public opinion and the outcome of the last election in Maryland, the Governor’s bill to stimulate job growth is reasonable.

If the bill passes, however, it will be interesting to see how the Governor distributes the jobs. Labor unions, especially those with large membership from the construction industry, will be fighting for the contracts to set up hiring halls for their members. In recent years, the labor movement as a whole has been an important supporter of the Governor, but as individual labor unions compete against one another for jobs, the Governor will have to prioritize among them. This will cause another political battle; this time, within his support group.

To see a critique of the Governor’s bill click here.