Transportation Bill Takes Aim at 'Pay to Play' ; State Crackdowns on Fair-Bid Contracts Get Backing from Federal Legislation

Article excerpt

Every five years Congress passes a massive transportation funding bill that is often filled with so much pork the legislation is usually embraced by nearly every congressman and senator.

But this year, besides the $283.9 billion to be spent in the bill - which passed the House last week - there's at least one amendment that is trying to make it easier for states to forestall corruption.

The change entails the effort by states to end what is termed "pay to play," that is the giving of political contributions by companies seeking government contracts. What makes this amendment even more unusual is that it's sponsored by three congressmen from New Jersey, a state that seems to wake up every morning to another round of indicted officials. The legislation, say its sponsors, will narrow the potential for graft. And it might actually lower the cost of repaving all those freeways.

"There's less of an opportunity for a wink and a blink, and the contracts may be saving people money," says Rep. Bill Pascrell (D), who cosponsored the amendment with Rep. Robert Menendez (D), and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R).

The federal amendment became necessary after New Jersey passed legislation banning pay to play in the state last fall. But the Federal Highway Administration warned the state was in danger of losing $260 million in federal funds if it implemented the legislation. The reason: The new law might cut down on the number of companies bidding on contracts using federal dollars.

To some extent an increasing number of states, including Connecticut, West Virginia, South Carolina, and Illinois have passed similar types of laws. The legislation has also passed in individual towns and counties. New Jersey's law, however, is the most far- reaching. "Every other state allows people who contribute at the state level to apply for federal low-bid contracts," says Marc LaVorgna, director of communications for the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

In the name of saving the taxpayer money, the federal rules have existed for some time. For example, in the 1980s, opponents of apartheid failed to prevent companies who were doing business in South Africa from bidding on federal projects. "No matter how noble the cause, it would take an act of Congress to change the law," says Mr. LaVorgna.

In fact, in recent times, the courts have generally upheld certain "pay to play" prohibitions. …