MONKEYING WITH STATE contract awards is dangerous business. In fact, tilting the playing field is strictly illegal. These multi-million-dollar awards must be given only to the lowest bidder or the best-qualified applicant.
So why is Gov. Parris Glendening demanding that state officials do more to give these contracts to in-state companies? He recently blocked the award of one state contract at the Board of Public Works and nearly rejected a second contract because the winning bidders were not Maryland firms.
That's a precarious position. The governor could open the state to costly lawsuits if he overturned a contract on the basis of geographic favoritism. It also could leave Mr. Glendening vulnerable to charges of political cronyism and attempting to repay his financial supporters.
His aides say that's not the governor's intent: He's simply trying to send a message that he wants to encourage in-state companies to go after contracts. And he made it clear he wants an explanation when contracts fail to go to Maryland firms.
We can understand the governor's desire to "think Maryland" and increase the work available for local companies. But he is getting perilously close to impinging on the sanctity of the procurement process.
There's nothing wrong with state officials seeking out local firms to submit bids for contracts. The more competition the better, and the more local companies involved the better. But beyond that point, Mr. Glendening had better keep hands off. Giving preferential treatment to local bidders tilts the playing field and taints the state's contracting laws.
Often, no local company bids on a state contract because no local firm has the expertise in that particular field. Sometimes out-of-state partners are essential for small in-state firms seeking technically demanding contracts. And often, non-Maryland companies simply submit the lowest bids.
Maryland's procurement laws have served taxpayers well. The state usually gets the best product for the best price. In-state firms already receive the lion's share of the work.
Mr. Glendening can encourage in-state bidders all he wants, but should stand clear of the actual selection process. Charges of tampering could destroy faith in the procurement law -- and the public's faith in Mr. Glendening.