May 26, 2017 11:20:03 AM
There are likely few state officials who spend more time on the road than Brandon Presley, the Northern District commissioner for the Mississippi Public Service Commission.
"I've been to more than 160 town hall meetings in the past year," Presley said.
As he traveled, something began to catch his attention.
"What I kept seeing was all these big, taxpayer funded projects -- power plants, substations, transmission lines -- and it made me sick to see out-of-state trucks with out-of-state tags and out-of-state workers when I knew darn well there were Mississippians who could do that work," Presley said. "Why should it be that way?"
In answering that question, Presley, with the consent of the three-member PSC, intends to amend its rules to implement what he calls a Hire Mississippi rule. It would apply to all entities -- primarily public utilities -- under PSC's jurisdiction.
While the rule would not levy penalties or offer incentives -- which Presley acknowledged would be illegal -- it will help open the bid process to Mississippi companies for rate-payer funded projects that are subject to public bids.
"I'm not saying anything nefarious is happening," Presley said. "But I do think a lot of Mississippi businesses feel like they are left out of the process. What we are trying to do with this rule is make the bid process more transparent and accessible."
Presley said under the new rule, which he expects the PSC to approve by the end of the summer, state-owned and operated businesses registered as PSC-qualified contractors would receive direct notice from utility companies of any projects up for bid.
The rule would also require utilities to advertise in local newspapers of any upcoming bids on a quarterly basis.
Presley said a Hire Mississippi portal on the PSC's website will allow Mississippi businesses to access that information.
"The truth is, right now, if you don't know the availability of a contract or how to bid for that contract, you're left on the sidelines," he said. "We want to open that up, make it more transparent."
Ty Crane, of F.L. Crane & Sons Construction in Fulton and a board member for the Mississippi chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said he likes the idea.
"I think something like this would be really good for maybe the smaller contractors, who may not be all that experienced with how bids work," Crane said. "Right now, the larger contractors in the state are getting a pretty good look at the bigger contracts. But when the economy slows down, that's when you really see a lot of out-of-town folks come in. So, depending on the situation, it should be a good thing for both the bigger and smaller contractors. It certainly won't hurt."
Presley said the rule will also allow state-owned businesses to better understand what they need to do to compete with the out-of-state contractors who routinely win contracts.
"Under the rule, on an annual basis utility companies have to certify they've followed the Hire Mississippi procedures: Did you follow the Hire Mississippi requirements? Did you hire a Mississippi company? If the answer is no, then why not? There may be legitimate reasons. We need to know that, too," Presley said. "If we don't have enough contractors certified in a certain skill, we need to get them. We need to be able to tell our contractors, 'Hey, y'all are losing business because somebody in Arkansas is doing something you can't do. You need to fix that.'"
Presley said the state spends about $1 billion in new construction, maintenance and operations for PSC-regulated projects alone.
He said he expects to put the rule in effect by August or September, around the same time the PSC will rule on a major transmission line and converter project proposal from Texas-based Southern Cross that will run through the Golden Triangle.
"Just as an example, the Southern Cross project is roughly $200 million for construction. Now, if state companies wound up with even a quarter of that, that's $50 million," he said. "Think what that would do, not just for the contractors, but for the communities in terms of tax revenue. That's no small thing."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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