Tester bill to ‘level playing field’ for businesses

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Lauren Russell

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., unveiled legislation he said would help Montana small businesses land federal work contracts during his “Small Business Opportunity Workshop” in Bozeman on Friday.

The senator became involved in federal contracting last year over news that stimulus dollars targeted for Montana were being awarded to large, multinational, pre-selected companies to build five border ports along the Montana-Canada border.

After Tester and local business owners protested, Montana businesses were allowed to bid on some of the work. Several of those companies, including the Circle-based architectural firm J. Clinton Contract Services, won contracts with  the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We made the case that despite the fact that we’re a small firm, we can compete,” James Clinton told participants of the workshop, held at the Best Western GranTree Inn, Friday.

The issue has also been in the news with the federal government’s decision to award a construction contract for a new federal courthouse in Billings to a Minneapolis firm, even though a Great Falls company submitted a bid that was $8 million less. Construction of the new facility is on hold until a protest over the bid award is resolved by the Government Accountability Office.

“In many cases, the bidding process is set up so it weeds out the little guy,” Tester said. “This will help small business owners cut through the red tape.”

The bill, which Tester said will be introduced in the next week or so, will have three provisions: restrict most federal agencies from “bundling” large contracts; require agencies to specify the ascetic elements they want in a project so bidders aren’t rejected for not including those specifications in their proposals; and require the General Service Administration to enforce agreements to hire local subcontractors and improve outreach to small businesses.

“(Montana small businesses) work hard, value quality and know the value of a buck,” Tester said. “When they compete on a level playing field, they’ll win a majority of the time.”       

Tester said he’s sponsoring the bill because of comments his office has received from local contractors around the state, which were also the impetus for the small business workshops, the first of which was held in Great Falls in June. Participants included representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Malmstrom Air Force Base and the U.S. Postal Service.

More than 300 people participated in the workshop in Bozeman, according to Tester’s office. Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors’ Association, said that though he didn’t know the specific language of the new bill, he supported Tester’s efforts to address a process that favors “large, out-ofstate corporations.”

Often, the criteria to bid on a project are written so narrowly—requiring that a firm have previously constructed  projects similar to the proposal—that Montana contractors can’t qualify, Hegreberg said. Some firms are also chosen because an agency has experience with them, even if they aren’t the best choice for the job, he said.

“We’re not asking for any special preference or subsidies,” Hegreberg said. “We’re asking for a level playing field.”