AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are once again considering legislation to give Maine-based companies an advantage when they bid on state government contracts.

While past efforts to pass in-state-preference laws have failed, Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said it’s time to try again.

On Monday, Jackson introduced the “Buy American, Build Maine Act,” which requires all state construction projects to use American-made materials, including iron and steel. The measure also requires the state to give preference to Maine-based companies who submit competitive bids for services, labor and products, and gives those companies a chance to match a bid from outside the state if they are outbid on a contract. The measure exempts county and local governments and school districts from the requirement.

“We are certainly building a lot more support for it this time around,” Jackson said. “People should feel less concern about what it’s going to do for cost.”

Jackson drew on his own experience as a logger, noting that many residents in northern Maine, especially those who cut and truck lumber and trees, have watched their jobs get exported to Canada. He said when it comes to state work funded with state tax dollars, Maine companies and workers should be given a leg up.

“At the minimum we should be making sure that Maine businesses, Maine workers have an opportunity to get those contracts,” Jackson said. “There is nothing that would do more to help the state than have those dollars turned back into work, into people’s pockets right here in Maine.”

About a half-dozen people spoke in favor of Jackson’s legislation in testimony before the State and Local Government Committee, including executives for Maine companies who said the bill would protect and could help grow jobs.

David Grinnell, sales director at Dragon Products in Thomaston, said his company, which employs 100 workers, will soon be facing increased competition from a cement plant being built in northern Quebec that will be able to import cement to the eastern U.S. by ship starting next year. He said any preference for American-made and Maine-made products and services would help protect his companies’ financial interests. Grinnell said about 20 percent of Dragon’s sales are to the state government.

“It seems like a Maine company should get some kind of preference when it comes to state contracts that our tax dollars are paying for,” Grinnell said.

C.B. Smith, co-founder and CEO of Virtual Managed Solutions in Caribou, told lawmakers that his company had submitted a bid for a five-year state contract for web services for Maine Revenue Services. Smith said despite a bid that scored well, his company was passed over in favor of a Massachusetts company whose bid was $1 million higher.

“If we’d won that contract, we could have hired 24 more employees in the short term, and eight full-time, permanent employees,” Smith said. “That would have been a 25 percent growth in our workforce, and no small increase in money being spent in central Aroostook County. By awarding this contract to an out-of-state company, the state left our community behind.”

While House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, is the primary sponsor of the bill in the House, the measure also has bipartisan support, with two Republican senators and one Republican House member signing on.

Past efforts to require preference for Maine-based businesses in state contracting for goods and services have failed, with opponents usually citing the need for protecting taxpayers or maintaining flexibility for state agency operations.

A 2016 effort to pass a bill that would have given Maine companies preference on state contracts even if their bids were up to 5 percent higher was narrowly approved in the House but failed to pass the Senate and died between the chambers. A similar effort for a “buy American” provision in Maine law by Jackson in 2013 was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage.

Jackson said he had not spoken to LePage about his latest effort, but he intended to do so in hopes the Republican governor would support the bill.

Jackson’s bill, L.D. 956, also provides new definitions for a Maine-based company, ensuring those winning bids are not simply paper offices connected to a post office box, but are companies that actually do business in Maine.

Jackson said most New England states have similar provisions in their laws.

“Almost all of our New England partners are actually doing some sort of in-state preference for their workers,” Jackson said. “So we are actually behind the eight ball on that.” Jackson did not provide specific examples of what other New England states are doing.

A 2012 survey and report by the National Association of State Procurement Officers said that states often institute reciprocal in-state preference laws in response to neighboring states doing so. The 2012 survey received a response from 48 states and noted that 25 had some legal preference for in-state bidders on state contracts. But the organization, as well as the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, an international nonprofit organization of procurement officials, have typically opposed in-state preferences as being both anti-competitive and “impediments to the cost-effective procurement of goods, services and construction in a free-enterprise system.”

Jackson’s bill has been scheduled for a work session before the State and Local Government Committee next Monday. The committee could amend the bill before it votes on a recommendation to support or oppose the measure when it goes to the full Legislature for a vote.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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