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Lawmakers look at draft legislation

CHARLESTON — Members of the Joint Committee on Flooding got a sneak peek Tuesday of legislation meant to help how the state spends money, bids out projects, and hires people during a state of emergency.

Attorneys for the committee presented three draft bills Tuesday evening during a meeting at the State Capitol Building in Charleston. All three bills address issues that came up in the wake of massive flooding in 2016 and the state’s often-criticized disaster recovery program.

The first two bills, presented by counsel Carl Fletcher, deal with spending and bidding. One bill would allow the State Auditor’s Office to release payments in advance for federally funded projects. State Code currently prohibits the State Auditor’s Office from releasing funds in advance before materials and services are provided.

Fletcher cited as an example a federal project to repair a floodwall in Milton. The federal government required 35 percent of the state’s share of the project upfront in order to receive the federal government’s 65 percent share.

“This created some difficulty with the project because the Corps of Engineers would not bend on that a requirement that we provide the money upfront and we of course…the State Auditor’s Office had an issue with being able to pay that money upfront,” Fletcher said. “This bill would change that and allow us to have a requisition for money when necessary to comply with federal program requirements.”

The second bill Fletcher presented makes changes to a bill originally presented during the special session dealing with how housing construction projects are bid out during a state of emergency. Current law requires contracts of more than $25,000 to be competitively bid as well as a physical address.

The draft bill would allow competitive bids on an open-ended basis during a state of emergency and create a pool of multiple bidders for home reconstruction and rehabilitation with the lowest bid being awarded first, then the next lowest bidder. The physical address of the project would not need to be identified in the bid as long as the location is identified before construction. It also allows the state to waive performance bonds to allow smaller construction companies to bid on projects.

“This bill in this draft is a result of collaboration by staff at this committee, the Commerce Department generally, the Development Office within the Commerce Department and specifically the RISE program, the State Auditor’s Office, the Governor’s Office, and the Purchasing Division,” Fletcher said.

State Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, pointed out that a similar bill — House Bill 209 — never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. That bill was loaded down with amendments, including a $5 million-dollar cap on contracts, limited the contracts to residential reconstruction and rehabilitation, and allowed for open-ended contracts.

“I know speaking with some of the other legislators on both sides, the open end part is where there was a problem,” Jeffries said. “That’s why some of the amendments got put in there to eliminate that so that we can try to encourage our in-state contractors and material suppliers and everyone that would be affected to be able to participate in it.”

The third bill, presented by counsel Brian Casto, would allow the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to be exempt from hiring rules enforced by the Division of Personnel. It would allow the hiring and firing of staff at will and make the agency exempt from Civil Service provisions that govern how the agency sets salaries. The purpose of the bill is to allow the agency that plans and responds to emergencies to be able to hire up during a disaster and recruit qualified employees.

“This bill has a very simple end and it is simply to provide a greater hiring and firing flexibility to get those needed personnel as rapidly as can be,” Casto said.

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