Bidding Wars


California's political establishment and its grassroots activists just can't get on the same page, especially when they're talking about initiatives on the June 2 primary ballot. At the state Republican convention in January, a vote supporting the anti-bilingual-education "English for the Children" proposal caused an embarrassing rift: Every party leader opposed the measure even though most of the delegates and perhaps 70 percent of voters favor it. In March, Democratic insiders were similarly rebuffed when delegates at their convention rejected a resolution for an initiative drafted by party leaders and public employees unions. The convention featured the unfortunate (for the leaders, that is) theme of Unity.

Proposition 224, the "Government Cost and Taxpayer Savings Initiative" would require contractors bidding on government engineering, design, and repair projects that amount to more than $50,000 to submit to a process of competitive bidding overseen by the state comptroller, extending a competitive-bidding process that currently applies to new construction projects. The initiative's backers, led by construction and state employees unions, believed they would get unified support from traditional Democratic Party interest groups.

But an unusual alliance of taxpayer advocates, civil rights organizations, local government officials, and the California Teachers Association have publicly attacked the initiative as costly and discriminatory. The taxpayer groups say the initiative could increase taxpayer costs by as much as $1.7 billion a year and require the state to hire 15,000 new employees to do the work; they point out that a state employee group bidding on an engineering contract would have to cite only the incremental cost of hiring new workers to complete the job, while a private engineering firm must include the costs of overhead and other expenses along with their new hires.

Civil rights groups, backed by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, contend that many of the state highway engineers who would benefits from the initiative are white; they fear that businesses owned by women and members of racial minorities (especially nonunion firms) would be shut out of the process. Local education officials complain that contracts that have traditionally been bid locally would have to be vetted by the state comptroller, a process that could delay routine repairs for months.

The initiative is opposed by "virtually every school district, water district, dozens of unions, taxpayer groups, and hundreds of cities," says Adrian T. Moore, director of economic studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute, "simply because they don't want to pay the higher cost of using state engineers and architects for every construction project."