May 27, 2018
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‘Buy Maine, buy America’ bill tangled in politics again

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff
Updated:

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill designed to give Maine and U.S-based businesses an advantage when it comes to government contracts and acquisitions appears headed for partisan deadlock again.

LD 1525 was originally proposed by Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton as a mandate to state government departments and agencies to purchase goods and services from Maine-based or domestic entities whenever possible, as long as the price is no more than 5 percent higher than competitors’. But the bill has been amended and after a partisan 7-5 vote of the State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday, neither version of the bill now under consideration is anywhere close to that concept.

Democrats support the creation of an independent Procurement Review Board composed of the attorney general, the state treasurer and five governor-appointed Mainers who would be responsible for pre-approving or denying all state expenditures of more than $1 million.

Republicans, including Saviello, support a simplified version of the bill that would give preference to Maine companies in spending decisions, specifically those expenditures of $100,000 or more or printing contracts of $5,000 or more. Essentially, that would give state agencies codified leeway to choose a Maine company, even if that company’s price tops other bids.

In essence, that version of the bill follows the intent of a May 2012 executive order from Gov. Paul LePage, giving Republicans hope that it’s a version that might actually make it to enactment.

Saviello said Wednesday that he realized the 5 percent provision was a “poison pill,” which is why he ended up supporting the preference amendment.

“If we put a 5 percent benefit to Maine companies in law, that will actually count against us in 45 states where our Maine companies do projects,” said Saviello.

Democrats, who support the Procurement Review Board amendment by Rep. Jared Golden of Lewiston, see this bill as an opportunity to help Maine businesses by sending state expenditures their way while creating transparency in the contracting process they say just doesn’t exist.

Sen. Nate Libby of Lewiston, the only Democratic senator on the committee, said he has been asking for certain sole-source contract and expenditure information from the Department of Administrative and Financial Services for months but has not received a response.

“This is good public policy,” said Libby. “Right now, the amount of transparency across government purchasing is basically nil.”

Republican Sen. Rodney Whittemore of Skowhegan, co-chairman of the committee, said Republicans voted against Golden’s version of the bill because of concerns that it would slow an already complex procurement process. Whittemore also said creation of a procurement board — while volunteer — would be costly if an executive director is hired, as allowed in the Democrats’ version.

Whittemore said he has no transparency concerns after committee work sessions in which executive branch officials vowed to be better about sharing information.

“If a department is willing to provide that transparency without a mandate, it’s going to be a much better relationship,” said Whittemore. “I’m convinced that willingness is there.”

The bill will go to the full Legislature in the coming weeks, but like most legislation this session, could become the victim of election-year politics. Similar proposals in recent years by former Sen. Troy Jackson of Allagash and Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake — both Democrats — failed. Jackson’s bill was vetoed by LePage in 2013. Martin’s died in 2015 after Whittemore motioned “ought not to pass” in the Republican-led Senate.

In addition, LePage and Saviello have a notoriously confrontational relationship, considering they are both Republicans. That could spell trouble if an enacted bill makes it to LePage’s veto pen.

Whittemore said he intends to motion in favor of the minority report when the bill comes to the Senate. Golden and Libby acknowledged it will be tough to find Republican support for their version of the bill.

“We’ll be working on our Republican colleagues, just like we do with any other bill,” said Golden.

Correction: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that Sen. Nate Libby is from Auburn. He is from Lewiston.


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