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Lawmakers Vote To Preempt Local Rules For Public Contracts

Jonathan Kos-Read via flickr

Florida lawmakers want to set new statewide standards for public contracts. But local governments say the plan threatens their independence.

The concept of home rule is baked in to Florida government. That policy of self-determination means municipalities can pass their own minimum wage and human rights ordinances. Or set certain requirements for publicly-funded contracts. Coconut Creek Democrat Kristin Jacobs represents Broward County in the Florida House. But she used to sit on that county’s commission, which chooses public contractors based on their social policies.

“We went into a series of processes that looked at the values of our community and our county," Jacobs said. "And that included whether you provide domestic partnership benefits. It included whether or not you paid a living wage. It included other things that helped figure out which was the company that was going to best draw down our dollars.”

But Pace Republican Representative Jayer Williamson wants to preempt local governments from making those calls, when projects are funded by a majority of state dollars.

“The purpose of this bill is to ensure that with public construction, where taxpayer dollars are at stake, we have an open, honest and competitive bid process. Around the state we have local governments that are whittling down the bid process before it even starts,” Williamson said.

Some counties have decided a higher wage and preference for local workers outweighs the cost of possibly losing some bidders. Carol Bowen represents the Associated Builders and Contractors, and she says those policies are hurting small businesses.

“Your small businesses can’t handle when you tell them: you can only hire from here. You can only pay this. You can only train there. They will stop doing the work. And if we’re all worried about small businesses, we should want this bill and we should want it with a broader reach,” Bowen said.

Auburndale Republican Representative Neil Combee says when the state is paying most of the costs, local governments shouldn’t be able to set their own rules.

“If you’ve got a million dollar project, and $700,000 come from the state taxpayers, which includes Crestview and Palatka and a lot of other smaller communities, then those rules can’t apply. We’re gonna treat those differently. Because those dollars do come from folks from Pensacola to Key West,” Combee said.

Combee says state money should be spent with the diversity of the state in mind.

“It’s about provincialism! It’s about parochialism! It’s about exclusion! It’s about protection! We heard the word preference, it’s about preference! We prefer people that do things that we want it done,” Combee said.

The debate has lawmakers caught between two over-arching principles in Florida politics: the virtues of home rule and the free market. Boca Raton Democratic Representative Joe Abruzzo says he’s stunned by the outcome.

“For decades I have heard the majority party talk about small government. Making sure we shrink government and giving more power and more control to local government and what’s closest to the people. And then we sit up here and we legislate policy that hinders local government every step of the way,” Abruzzo said.

The House Government Accountability Committee moved the bill forward Wednesday. It now heads to the floor.