Francis W. White, a state legislator from Prince George's County who owns and operates his own engineering company, is sponsoring legislation that would make it easier -- and more profitable -- for firms such as his to win state contracts.
White's measure, the only bill he has introduced this session, would abolish the state's current policy of requiring architectural and engineering firms to submit competing bids for the some $6 million in design contracts awarded in Maryland each year.
Competitive bidding for design contracts became mandatory in the state in the mid-1970s following a series of scandals in which several Maryland officials -- including Spiro T. Agnew, the former vice president, governor, and Baltimore County executive -- were charged with taking kickbacks from consulting firms.
In the place of competitive bidding, White's bill would substitute a system of "competitive negotiation" under which state officials would first choose the most qualified firm to design new buildings and other construction projects, then negotiate a price with the firm. The most qualified company would get the contract unless state officials could not negotiate a "fair, competitive and reasonable" price.
In an interview today, White said his bill might open the same contract process more to smaller design firms, which are sometimes shut out by a competitive bidding system. Among those smaller companies is White's own Professional Construction Consultants Ltd., which was chartered by the state in 1976.
White is the owner and sole member of the firm. A career consulting engineer, he has recently revived his work after a lapse of several years.
The contract bill did not conflict with his financial interests, White maintained, because "I do not intend to bid for any state contracts while I am a member of this legislative body." White was elected to the House of Delegates in 1978 after serving several terms on the Prince George's County Council.
Asked if he might accept state consulting work once his political career was over, White replied, "I'm not that interested in that sort of thing."
"I gave some thought to whether I was getting into a [conflict of interest] situation," White said, "I decided that I was not . . . because I have no emotion about this -- my personal emotions are not involved.
"I see doctors that are delegates giving needed advice on medical issues here," White said, "and I see lawyers giving their advice on legal issues. I don't see why a qualified engineer can't give his advice on the area of his expertise."
Although White is a cosponsor of a number of bills introduced in the legislature this session, the contracting bill is the only one he drafted and is prime sponsor of.
One of the prime elements of current state contract policy is a requirement that state officials consider price bids by consulting firms in awarding contracts, although the contract award is not supposed to be made on the basis of cost alone.
State officials said that under this system, architectural and engineering firms are paid an average of about 3.8 percent of the estimated cost of the construction project. When price was not a factor, officials said, the margins of consultants ranged between 5 and 6 percent.
White said the return to a system of contract awards without price bids was appropriate because engineers and architects are in the same class as doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who are not required to fix their prices before beginning work.
"The industry feels that prices are becoming the main ingredient in awarding contracts," White said, "when that should not be the main criterion involved."
The problem with White's measure, state officials said yesterday, is that it deprives the state of the advantages of the marketplace in awarding design contracts. "Without the bidding," one official said, "the state will never know if its getting the best deal."
White said that he introduced his bill in part as an alternative to a similar measure that has been proposed by Del. R. Charles Avara (D-Baltimore City), vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
In addition to changing the contract system, Avara's bill would set up a new state commission that would review contracts in excess of $5,000 and investigate allegations of improper contract awards or services by firms. White's bill deletes that proposed commission.
"If the [legislature] has trouble with Avara's bill, I was hoping they would turn to mine as more acceptable," White said. "I think there are a number of places where the functions [of Avara's proposed commission] can be performed.
"My bill does not get into substantial changes," White said. "It just goes straight at that one issue -- pricing."