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State making effort to buy products made in the USA

Chip Ellis
(From left) Delegate Larry Barker, D-Boone; Ron Russell, a member of Carpenters' Local 1207; and Larry Matheney, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO discuss the proposed Buy American Act in front of the West Virginia Water Authority's new building on the corner of Bullitt and Spring Streets in Charleston.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At the direction of West Virginia legislators, a task force is considering whether to require the use of American-produced raw materials and products in all construction projects funded by state tax dollars.

The House of Delegates passed the West Virginia Buy American Act in February and the Senate passed it in March, before Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed it.

The legislation set up the Buy American Task Force to review its detailed provisions and requirements, before any of them can take effect. Task force members are supposed to report to the Legislature next year.

"If we take your tax money, we want to buy products made in America," said Delegate Larry Barker, D-Boone.

"Today, 37 states are looking at similar legislation. It would be nice if West Virginia was first in something," Barker said. "This country is doomed if we don't continue manufacturing."

Some of the major products used in construction projects, which are manufactured here and abroad, include pipes, reinforcing rods, pumps and electrical fixtures. Other materials, such as asphalt, can only be imported.

Barker said there would have to be some exemptions. "If an American-made product costs 25 percent more than a product made in China, we probably should use the Chinese product.

"And if there are not enough things made here, we will have to import them. Some products are not made here. Some things run in limited supply," Barker said. "If you can't buy it in America, then you can get a waiver."

The legislation itself pointed out, "The production of iron, steel, manufactured goods, coal and timber provides jobs and family income to many individuals in this state and, in turn, the jobs and family incomes of millions of persons in the United States."

"The main benefit of the 'Buy-American' process is to keep American dollars in America and preferably in West Virginia," stated the Buy American Task Force in the agenda for its Sept. 27 meeting.

Larry Matheney, secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said, "Let's lay the foundation to begin reversing the trend of offshore manufacturing. It may cost a little bit more, but you create a job for your neighbor.

"Today, we are losing to product made in countries with low wages, no environmental regulations, no human rights," Matheney said. "Until we return manufacturing to the United States, all these other political arguments concerning deficit reduction are just rhetoric. We have to bring manufacturing jobs back if we want to see the resurgence of the middle class."

West Virginia's government currently has no rules requiring state agencies or contractors to reveal where they buy products used for construction.

Chris E. Jarrett, executive director of the West Virginia Water Development Authority, said he does not know what percentage of products used to construct his agency's new headquarters were made in America. The new $3.2 million building sits on the corner of Bullitt and Spring Streets in Charleston.

"We obviously tried to deal locally in any ways we could -- local labor, local vendors. But that was not mandatory. There were no guidelines we had to adhere to," Jarrett said.

He said the "Buy American" movement is a great idea, but potential problems loom.

"It is really complicated," Jarrett said. "Even if products are bought that were assembled in America, all of the parts are not necessarily made in America."

Ron Russell, a member of Carpenters' Local 1207, has been working on the nearly completed Water Development Authority building and grounds.

 "We would also like to see American-made goods and American-made products used. We don't know how many [at his current project] were American-made," Russell said. "We want to be able to track the source of all the materials."

The FBI Center recently constructed in Clarksburg primarily used American-made products, Russell said.

"What would really be nice is if we got a law passed requiring this. Other states would then follow West Virginia," Russell said.

Raamie Barker, senior adviser to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the Tomblin administration supports the "Buy American" movement, but said that's not enough by itself.

"We also need to get people to look at where a product comes from when they purchase something for themselves," Barker said. "We need to make things in America. Consumers need to speak out. Then merchants will respond by looking for products that are made in America.

"If the marketplace demands that products come from American manufacturers, that is where they will come from," Barker said.

Members of the task force studying the Buy American bill include Edward Magee of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, Mitch Woodrum of the state Division of Labor, David Tincher of the state Purchasing Division and Elaine Harris of the Communications Workers of America.

"Those of us on the committee who represent workers tend to believe each and every product used in construction should be made in America. Sometimes, that it is not possible. But wherever it is possible, this brings jobs back to America," Harris said. "We also have many businesses that want to do the right thing."

"West Virginia's procurement policies," the legislation states, "should reflect the state's and the nation's principles ensuring that the products of those companies and workers who abide by our workplace safety and environmental laws and regulations should be rewarded with a commonsense preference in government contracting."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.

 


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