Polluting the emissions contract

October 06, 1992

With $100 million or more at stake, there's a strong temptation for state politicians to throw their weight around to ensure that Maryland's auto-emissions testing contract goes to the politically correct company. That's why the Schaefer administration should keep the decision-making process as impartial and non-political as possible.

Already, two powerful black legislators have met with the governor and with top transportation officials to get special consideration for a black-owned company eager to win the bid. According to one participant's account, the legislators threatened "trouble for the department" unless the procurement process was intentionally tilted in the direction of their favored company.

That firm, Envirotest Systems Corp., acquired the current state auto-emissions stations in April. The company is minority controlled. Yet its board chairman has not alleged racial bias in the procurement process. This has not stopped black legislators from making exactly that allegation.

These legislators claim the bidding rules were set up to thwart Envirotest from getting the new contract. But most of these rules were already in place before Envirotest purchased the Maryland emissions stations. Moreover, while black legislators have gone to bat for one minority-owned bidder, they have failed to aid another minority business that has expressed an interest in this contract. The charges of racial bias ring hollow.

Envirotest does, indeed, want the state's ground rules changed, but the company's disputes are on technical points, not racial considerations. The company wants the state to specify precisely how the winning bid will be determined; it wants to know from the state precisely why some of its current emissions stations are deemed obsolete by DOT officials, and it wants an independent specialist in auto-emissions testing stations to review the procurement rules for fairness and cost-efficiency.

All of these requests appear reasonable and ought to be considered by the department. The integrity of the bidding process could be enhanced, but the process would be irreparably harmed if politicians are permitted to interfere. These lawmakers have no business mucking in contract awards. State laws are expressly designed to prevent this from happening.

If the bidding rules are flawed, they should be modified. Such changes happen routinely in complicated government contracts. What cannot be tolerated is political pressure that mocks the impartiality of the procurement law. Maryland's reputation has already been sullied by irregularities in the awarding of government contracts. No one in the State House can afford to let it happen again.

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