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Ohio grapples with construction rules

Gov. Ted Strickland is in a tricky spot over outspoken opposition by black lawmakers to an overhaul of public construction contracting procedures.

The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus has strongly denounced the proposal by Senate Republicans, saying it lacks assurances that minority firms will be able to get their fair share of work.

But the proposal essentially adopts recommendations made by a panel earlier this year — a panel formed by Strickland.

Republicans have attached the construction changes to a state budget fix that would delay the last round of planned income tax reductions, and that has forced the caucus to air its concerns with Strickland’s panel publicly, when the governor and the caucus were already working quietly out of the spotlight to address them.

Republicans are simultaneously pressuring the governor to accept his own panel’s recommendations, which Strickland says weren’t meant to represent finished legislation.

The administration can either defend the panel against the black caucus’ complaints, potentially further angering the lawmakers — who are generally supporters of the governor — or it can take the bullet.

On Monday, Department of Administrative Services Director Hugh Quill publicly acknowledged before the Senate Finance Committee that there could have been a better effort in addressing minority concerns on the panel.

The black caucus has not concealed its disdain for the construction panel recommendations or the panel makeup itself.

A two-page document involved in the formation of the panel recommendations shows the panel did address potential impacts on minority business firms, but these were not enough to assuage caucus concerns.

Rep. Tracy Maxwell Heard, a Franklin County Democrat who is acting as the caucus’ point person on construction changes, described the panel report’s treatment of minority concerns as a “subset of a subset.”

“I think it’s insulting how little attention was given to it in the task force,” said Heard, who added the caveat that the governor is, “very conscientious. He’s usually very good about having the minority community participate.”

The administration chose one minority participant for the panel. But it did not ask the black caucus for a recommendation, as it normally does, Heard said. Then Senate Democratic Leader Ray Miller, who is black, was given an opportunity to suggest panel participants. But that never happened. The construction panel was established in August 2008, near the end of Miller’s rocky 10-month tenure as Democratic leader.

The crux of the construction changes would enable state projects to use so-called single prime contracting, in which the state hires one contractor to handle an entire project. Ohio has been using multi-prime contracting, in which the state negotiates with a number of contractors on different elements of a construction project.

Organizations with a large number of public projects, particularly The Ohio State University, say they can save tens of millions of dollars by using single-prime contracting. But smaller contracting firms — including minority-owned firms — are concerned they could get cut out of job opportunities because of the changes.

Strickland, deflecting the criticism of the panel from the black caucus, said its concerns are a good example of why the legislation shouldn’t be rushed. He also said the Republicans may have damaged chances at consensus.

“Quite frankly, one of my concerns is that what the Senate has done may have set back the progress that we were making,” Strickland said. “A concern I have is that positions could be hardened if there is a perceived effort to push this through without having all of those concerns fully aired.”

Stephen Majors is a correspondent for the Ohio Associated Press.