Tester pushes for small-business role

Associated Press

HELENA – The federal government must support "the little guys" in moving forward with the economic stimulus package, Sen. Jon Tester told a congressional hearing Wednesday as he relayed concerns that out-of-state companies will get too much of the contract work for stimulus projects in Montana.

"I don't want to cut any deals, just make sure there's an opportunity for these folks (Montana businesses) to compete," Tester said at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the nomination of Martha Johnson to head the U.S. General Services Administration.

Johnson gave the Montana Democrat, who is on the committee, a commitment to visit the state and meet with representatives of small businesses so they can hear directly from GSA how to pursue work in the federal stimulus program, which is intended to boost the economy through construction projects and other work.

Johnson's nomination requires Senate confirmation, and the timing of a visit depends partly on how soon the Senate acts.

Small businesses are "the ones we're going to be riding to get out of this recession," Tester said.

"And we need to make sure we have more opportunities (for them), not fewer."

The Montana firm CTA Architects Engineers was involved in construction of four border stations in Montana and North Dakota during the past few years and is among the concerned businesses.

The federal stimulus package includes $420 million for work on 43 border stations, 39 of them on the nation's northern edge. Of those 39, eight are in Montana.

Federal agencies have used a noncompetitive system to award the port projects' upfront architecture and engineering work to a large California company, the Missoulian reported. In a memo received by the Montana Contractors Association, CTA said neither it nor any other firm in Montana is in a position to compete against "mega-sized firms" in other states. "We don't have the resources or lobbyist connections to compete," the memo says. Calls seeking further comment from CTA were not returned on Wednesday.

Cary Hegreberg of the contractors association said in a recent interview that "there's a certain amount of subjectivity that comes into play with federal construction contracts. We're hearing increasingly from our member companies, as a result of the stimulus package, that the federal agencies administering some of these funds are moving toward a contractor selection process that will by and large exclude local contractors entirely."

Asked Wednesday about claims that the federal process is set up in a way that makes it difficult for small businesses to compete, GSA representative Sahar Wali reiterated Johnson's statement that if confirmed as the GSA chief, she will work closely with Tester to support small-business inclusion. Wali also said Johnson indicated support for programs that teach small businesses how to engage in the federal bidding process.