Opinion: Responsible contracting is commonsense good governance

On Tuesday, May 23, the Centre County Commissioners voted 2-1 to advertise a responsible contracting ordinance, with a final vote scheduled for late June.

Responsible contracting ordinances are commonplace, good governance measures found across the country. They exist across Pennsylvania, ranging from Dauphin to Bucks County, the city of Pittsburgh to Upper Darby Township, and everywhere in between. Typically, they apply to projects costing over a certain threshold — in Centre County’s proposed ordinance, $250,000, applicable only to projects put out for bid by the county.

Responsible contracting places common sense guidelines on what constitutes the lowest “responsible” bid: ensuring that contractors have trained workforces qualified to complete the job, that workers are trained on workplace safety, and crucially, that contractors follow state and federal labor laws. This ensures that bidders are competing by the same rules on a level playing field, instead of a small number of big contractors with questionable business practices routinely squeezing responsible firms out of the market.

The policies are proven to work. A study completed in 2020 by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that responsible contracting policies increase the number of bids on projects and promote better competition, without increased costs. It makes sense that when there’s fair competition and guardrails to ensure that public dollars can be spent wisely on the lowest responsible bidder, outcomes are better. Preparing a bid costs significant time and money, and responsible contractors choose to bid elsewhere when they know they’ll be outmuscled by less scrupulous outfits.

So why has the ordinance generated so much controversy?

In reality, it hasn’t. The “controversy” has been manufactured by a small group of contractors and their political allies relying on misdirection and the occasional falsehood to make their case. To hear them tell the story, a person would think that responsible contracting policies are an exotic idea, instead of ones found across the commonwealth and the country.

Although they’ve claimed that they can’t meet requirements for trained workforces, that’s not true: They simply don’t want to invest in it. Registered apprenticeships — state-regulated, high quality workforce training programs — are commonplace, and the Association of Builders and Contractors even runs their own. Responsible contractors participate in registered apprenticeship programs because they know that high quality workforces produce high quality work, and that workforce development is an investment in good jobs. Projects completed by well-trained workers incur less back-end maintenance and rebuilding costs, too.

So why the misdirection? Because for a long time, a small minority of unscrupulous contractors have been able to rig the game to their advantage, funneling our tax dollars into their pockets while squeezing out their competition. Accountability for their business practices has been all too rare, though some of them have recently received jail time or paid multimillion dollar wage theft settlements. Unfortunately, they want to protect what they view as their entitlement to our tax dollars, secured by skirting the laws everyone else follows.

Responsible contracting would help fix that. It would ensure that contractors have to do honest business to receive our tax dollars: something they receive in trust, in exchange for high quality work. Those that fall short of that simple standard will have the opportunity to correct the problems, and to compete for projects in the future. Meanwhile, there will be a level playing field for true competition, not the monopoly of the few firms that can undercut the rest.

Centre County is right to move forward with the ordinance. It’s basic, commonsense good governance with clear benefits for workers and for taxpayers. And with such potential to empower county government and ensure responsible stewardship of our tax dollars, we should ask hard questions about the motivations and goals of those that mislead and misdirect in order to oppose it.

Connor Lewis is a resident of State College Borough and president of Seven Mountains Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO.