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Project delivery getting buried in policy

It’s easy to understand why Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to change Wisconsin’s primary method of awarding and overseeing state construction projects has been the subject of little debate among lawmakers.

It’s one of those 58 proposals in the governor’s 2013-15 budget that have been marked by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau as policy items, rather than fiscal items. As such, it must compete for attention with a host of other matters, many of them subjects of fierce debate: An expansion of the state’s school-voucher program, a plan to collect DNA from crime suspects on arrest, a loosening of the rules governing the rent-to-own-industry, among others.

Lawmakers’ energies, in other words, are being tugged in other directions.

It’s also easy to see why, in the arguments about what should be removed from the budget, few, if any, lawmakers have pointed to the proposed change to single-prime contracting. It’s a fairly technical matter, one that would have most state construction projects worth more than $185,000 overseen by a single general contractor. Under the current system, multiple-prime contractors – mechanical, electrical and plumbing companies – now operate independent of each other and are managed separately by the state.

The proposed change, meant to make construction projects easier to manage, initially drew opposition from only one group, the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin. And even that has been dropped.

So no one should really be surprised if lawmakers, seeing that no continuing opposition from any of the parties that would be directly affected, are inclined to let so technical a proposal stay in the budget. And that’s what they appear poised to do.

A list of items marked as policy and removed from the budget by the two chairpersons of the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee – state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills – did not mention single-prime contracting. That’s as strong of a sign of any that it is likely to stay in the budget, although with some slight amendments.

But a lack of controversy in no way diminishes the importance of the proposed switch to single-prime contracting. If the change were approved, the bulk of the nearly $1.45 billion in construction projects the state Building Commission has recommended be undertaken over the next two years would be delivered through single-prime contracting.

The proposed work includes a nearly $197 million replacement of WisDOT’s Hill Farms State Office Building Complex on Madison’s west side, a $32 million addition the University of Wisconsin’s Babcock Dairy Hall on the Madison campus and a $43 million Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory for the university. The system the state uses to oversee these projects is ultimately meant to ensure general contractors, subcontractors and, perhaps most importantly, taxpayers are all treated fairly when this work is bid out.

So even though single-prime contracting may be being overshadowed by other issues this session, let’s hope that lawmakers haven’t taken that as a sign that it should not be treated seriously.

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