Tester keeps heat on over government contracts


by Michael Jamison

KALISPELL – A Montana senator wants to know why large corporations tend to win big government contracts, often at the expense of smaller local businesses.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., first waded into the contracting fray back in spring of 2009, when federal contracts were being let to rebuild several Montana border ports.

Officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection insisted that speed was critical, and using multinational firms with existing and pre-approved federal contracts would hasten the work.

But local contractors were upset with the process, which seemed to favor bigger, out-of-state companies. Tester agreed that the playing field was not level, and argued the intent of federal stimulus spending was to spread investment throughout the economy, and not only to large corporations.

Eventually, room was carved out to allow locals to bid on at least some of the border work, with several Montana firms winning contracts. Among those companies was Missoula-based CTA Architects Engineers, which won a $7.5 million contract for a border port north of Malta. Before that job, CTA had laid off 10 percent of its workforce amid the economic downturn.

The firm was among dozens that attended a 2009 jobs meeting in Great Falls, organized by Tester and intended to introduce Montana companies to government contractors. It was the first of several such gatherings, which eventually grew to include not just contracting tips, but also expertise on exports and small-business startups.

The most recent meeting convened Friday in Kalispell, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and capital sources. (See related story)

In addition to the job workshops, Tester kept the heat on particular government agencies that insist upon emphasizing big firms with pre-existing contracts. Recently, the senator introduced a measure demanding an explanation as to why the same large corporations often seem to win government jobs.

According to Tester, the practice of using firms with previous federal contracting experience wrongly disqualifies local companies that often are capable of doing the same work at lower cost.

His measure would require the Government Accountability Office to study contract policies at three agencies – the General Services Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Homeland Security.

That request originally was contained as a provision of the Level Playing Field Contract Act, which Tester introduced in March.

"Montana is home to some of this country's most innovative and hardworking business owners," the senator said. "If we can break down the barriers that keep these folks out of the contracting business, we can go a long way toward boosting jobs and growing business all across the state."