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Analysis: Some governments revolt against purchasing law

JEFF AMY

Here’s a dark-horse candidate for the most unpopular law passed by last year’s Mississippi Legislature: House Bill 1106 .

It’s a measure few outside of government have ever heard of, but the requirement to change how state agencies and local governments buy things is infamous among county supervisors and others.

Cities, counties and others have long taken sealed bids purchases of supplies, equipment or certain services worth more than $50,000. But the new law requires agencies and governments to use a reverse auction for such purchases.

A reverse auction allows bidders to then undercut each other once the original bids are tallied. A company selling dump trucks, for example, might see on a computer screen that it’s not the lowest bidder to sell five trucks to a particular county. The company can choose to lower its bid to win the business.

Proponents of the system say it’s a sure money-saver. Vaughn Blaylock of Southern Procurement, which runs reverse auctions in Mississippi in exchange for a fee, says clients often save 15 percent or more of the amount they’ve budgeted.

“Using this process correctly would be like getting extra money,” Blaylock said.

One of Blaylock’s clients, Sunflower County Supervisor Riley Rice, told a January Mississippi Association of Supervisors meeting that his county saved $120,000 buying eight motorized road graders.

But many other supervisors that day were clearly unhappy about being forced into a new method of purchasing. Officials discussed how to get required exemptions from the Public Procurement Review Board, or how the Department of Finance and Administration was seeking to add dump trucks and garbage trucks to its state purchasing list, meaning cities and counties could buy them without taking bids.

Last week, the procurement review board delegated authority to the Department of Finance and Administration to continue approving exemptions for local governments through March 7. Department spokesman Chuck McIntosh couldn’t immediately say how many exemptions have been requested or if any have been approved.

Lawrence County Supervisor Steve Garrett expressed the concern in January that counties might end up overpaying for lower-quality trucks and construction equipment

“In heavy equipment, you’ve got a big variety in quality,” Garrett said.

Blaylock, though, said a properly written bid specification should ensure that a county gets the equipment it needs while making sure that price and not an existing business relationship determines who gets the business.

“Maybe there is something magical about the dirt in Mississippi that’s going to cause a process that works all over the world to not work, but I don’t know what that magic will be,” Blaylock said.

House members appear willing to let local governments out of the requirement. Wednesday, they passed House Bill 1131 , which would let local governments decide for themselves that they don’t need to use a reverse auction. Rep. Jerry Turner, a Baldwyn Republican who chairs the House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee, supported the move because he said the reverse auction requirements for local governments were inserted in the House-Senate conference last year and not adequately explained to House members before they voted. Turner, though, said he still supports reverse auction and would like to see it implemented for local governments after state agencies use it for a few years.

But Sen. John Polk, the Hattiesburg Republican who heads the corresponding Senate committee, doesn’t sound like he’s looking for a delay. He said Friday that he was “disappointed” in the House vote.

“I have been saying all year that it’s hard to say a law won’t work even before it has taken effect,” Polk said, a signal that the measure could die in the Senate.

» JEFF AMY has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jeffamy . Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy .

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