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Opinion

Op-Ed: Maryland's 'Buy America bill' is bipartisan, smart policy

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Opinion,Maryland

Several years ago in a state capital far, far away, California officials in the Schwarzenegger administration decided to outsource production of construction materials for the eastern span of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a massive, multibillion -dollar reconstruction of one of the most iconic man-made landmarks on the West Coast.

By forgoing federal funding, California officials -- eager to keep costs down -- were able to avoid "Buy America" rules that give preference to domestic content in publicly funded construction projects.

It's time to stop rewarding outsourcing and start giving those companies that invest in Maryland (and operate according to our standards for clean air, clean water and a safe workplace) the recognition they deserve. --- Scott Paul

The state-owned Chinese firm that won the contract had never before taken on a project of this size, and actually had to build a new production facility to complete the order. But with the backing of Beijing, it was able to offer an impossibly low bid and thus low-ball its competitors.

That decision ultimately cost at least 2,500 manufacturing job opportunities in America. Meanwhile, the complicated bridge design proved difficult to fabricate for the Chinese firm, and the project suffered from cost overruns, quality problems and delays.

The same mistake won't be made on any future infrastructure projects in Maryland. Recently passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers of the General Assembly, Maryland's new Buy American legislation covering manufactured goods will cement and expand domestic content preferences already on the books in the Free State.

The bill, championed by Del. Keiffer Mitchell, D-Baltimore, and Sen. Ronald Young, D-Frederick, will make Maryland a leader in the "Made in America" movement.

The logic behind these laws is simple, straightforward and fair: Maryland's tax dollars should remain in the state and national economy -- and not be used to subsidize work and jobs overseas, especially when cost-competitive and quality goods are available here at home.

By guaranteeing that when the government repairs a public highway or builds a new bridge, it looks to domestic manufacturers first, Buy American promotes domestic growth.

It creates an incentive for companies to set up shop at home in exchange for access to our public procurement markets. It encourages capital investment -- and that, in turn, encourages job creation.

What do more jobs mean? An expanded tax base and fewer burdens on the social safety net.

It's no surprise that these preferences are wildly popular at the state level, according to a summer 2012 poll that found 86 percent of respondents think Buy America laws are a good idea.

But the law isn't rigid. Should a certain material be prohibitively expensive in our home market or available only in limited quantities, a waiver from the law kicks in, ensuring Marylanders aren't soaked by price or left waiting for the completion of a project.

But there's more to these laws still: Many manufacturers in the state took their operations overseas in the last decade, leaving a 33 percent decline in manufacturing jobs.

It's time to stop rewarding outsourcing and start giving those companies that invest in Maryland (and operate according to our standards for clean air, clean water and a safe workplace) the recognition they deserve.

When Gov. Martin O'Malley signs this legislation, those companies will be rewarded with the first opportunity to supply the goods that are used to construct our schools, roads, sewer systems and railways.

For as much as we complain about broken politics, we spend precious little time promoting examples of wise bipartisanship. But Annapolis has provided an example. Buy American laws are as smart as they are popular. And our wider economy would be well served by more of them at the state level.

Scott Paul is president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

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