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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming construction contractors are lauding the state’s new preference laws designed to give them a leg up against out-of-state firms when seeking public contracts.

But there are already kinks in the new laws that need to be worked out. And the task for lawmakers now is to hammer out a permanent revision that makes Wyoming’s preference laws less confusing.

In March, Gov. Matt Mead signed two laws designed to help in-state contractors.

One piece of legislation he signed, House Bill 111, tightens the definition of an “in-state” contractor to try and thwart out-of-state contractors that pose as in-state firms to win state contracts, sometimes by listing a Wyoming post office box as their address.

Temporary restrictions

A second bill, Senate File 144, creates temporary restrictions requiring, among other things, that at least 70 percent of subcontractors hired for public construction projects are from Wyoming.

In addition, any time that threshold isn’t met — for example, if an out-of-state subcontractor could do the job much cheaper or no Wyoming subcontractors submitted a bid — high-ranking officials overseeing the projects would have to approve a waiver in writing and send the waiver to the governor and the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee.

The goal, said Jonathan Downing, executive vice president of the Wyoming Contractors Association, is to ensure that Wyoming companies get a foot in the door when bidding for state contracts.

In some cases, Downing said, the state has hired out-of-state architects or contractors for a project, and they in turn hire out-of-state subcontractors they already know without looking at Wyoming companies to perform the same work.

But already controversy has erupted about the interpretation of the new law.

Contract delayed

Last week, the Sheridan County school board delayed awarding a construction contract to build a new elementary school because of uncertainty about whether the new 70 percent requirement applies to just the initial “first-tier” contractors hired or any “second-tier” contractors hired by the initial contractors.

The School Facilities Commission claimed the law applies only to the first-tier contractors. But Josh Carnahan, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors in Wyoming, disagreed with that view.

Wyoming Attorney General Greg Phillips declined to say which view he believes is correct.

That issue will likely be one of many regarding construction preference laws taken up by lawmakers during this year’s interim session.

The provisions of Senate File 144 expire July 1, 2012, and the legislation directs the Joint Appropriations Committee to propose permanent rules for next year’s session.

Carnahan said he’s all for that, saying the state’s preference laws — some of which date back to the 1930s — need to be considered and streamlined as a whole to make them less confusing.

“Things have been added, things have been taken away,” he said. “It’s kind of been piece-mealed, which has made the law a little bit more complex than we believe it needs to be.”

Carnahan defended state preference laws, saying they offer an incentive for out-of-state companies to settle in Wyoming instead of just taking public money for a project and going home afterward.

“Some people call it building fences,” he said. “We call it economic development.”

A number of out-of-state contractors and contractor associations didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

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