Leader Blues

Monday, December 17, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Government needs bidding

Sometimes we think we have lived too long. The old verities that we believed were immutable are more and more out of fashion.

Take the doctrine of competitive bidding for government work. That was the best way to guarantee that the taxpayers got their money’s worth. Sealed bids from competitive contractors and suppliers were apt to get the job done for the lowest dollar. It was transparent, too. It was an open process so everyone had access to the figures.

State and local governments had to take bids if the estimated cost of a project or a volume of supplies exceeded a certain amount. Government could buy what it needed on the open market for the trifling stuff because bidding for every little purchase would be nettlesome, but for the big things you needed assurance that you were getting the best bargain for taxpayers.

That is old hat now. Exactly the opposite is considered the best practice. You take bids on the little things but for the expensive stuff you just hire whoever you’d like to see get the business.

The legislature and Gov. Huckabee changed the law to do that in 2001. Bids are not required if a project exceeds $5 million.

A bunch of building contractors want the old law reinstated. It could be just sour grapes because the big building contracts are going to only a few big companies and others are getting shut out. They say the public is not getting the most for its dollar — or at least they suspect that to be true. It’s hard to get figures to prove it. An association of contractors sued last year to force Nabholz Construction Co., the contractor for a $35 million dormitory at the University of Arkansas, to furnish details of $2.5 million in overhead expenses on the project, which the company got without bidding. The association lost the case. The Arkansas Supreme Court said a private company did not have to make its records public, even if they are for a public project.

State Rep. David Dunn of Forrest City thinks competitive bidding is still the taxpayers’ most reliable protection but he’s been unable to persuade many lawmakers to go along. A hearing before the Joint Interim Committee on Insurance and Commerce this week gave him little encouragement. Agents of the state’s biggest contractors said government got a better deal through private arrangements than from bidding.

Call us old fashioned or just born cynics. We don’t get it.