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Requiring Competitive Bids on Wisconsin School Construction Projects Is Long Overdue [WRN Voices]

Wisconsin School Construction

When was the last time the government did less of something?

We’re used to nothing but more—more inflation, more debt, and more spending, particularly under President Biden. From trillions of dollars spent during COVID to hundreds of billions for “Green New Deal” policies, to the “omnibus” bill giving a six percent spending hike across the board, Biden’s spending spree is going to be felt for generations.

Thankfully, some in Wisconsin are doing the opposite.

Sen. Duey Stroebel has a smart idea that’s working its way through the legislature as we speak. His bill, SB 688, would force local governments to actually spend less on one of their biggest ticket items: school construction.

Wisconsin is one of only three states that currently don’t require school boards to bid out school construction projects. The other 47 states have requirements for projects of different sizes (depending on the state) but one requirement is common—a public bidding process. Even Illinois—the land of corruption and backroom deals—has this law on the books, so surely we can as well.

This isn’t some small-potatoes change. According to Sen. Stroebel, in the past three elections, a total of 103 capital referenda were included on local ballots throughout the state. The vast majority (75) of them passed, costing taxpayers a combined $2.4 billion.

Compare that to the entire sum of Wisconsin’s capital budget and transportation borrowing, about $1.6 billion, and you can see the problem. Billions of dollars in taxpayer spending, and the largest single form of public construction in our state, has no requirement for competitive bidding.

These conditions have even created a cottage industry in Wisconsin of construction companies that don’t just do estimates or construction—they pitch projects to school districts, provide the estimate, run the referendum campaigns, and then get paid to deliver their own single-bid projects.

There are examples here, and here, and it quickly begins to look like single-source construction firms are leading the charge for large project referenda instead of parents, school boards, and administrators.

When you see the resulting property tax increases, you wonder if someone else could have done it for cheaper. But the truth is, it’s too late because nobody ever had to ask in the first place!

That’s been the problem with school construction for years now. There’s no real incentive to save money or watch out for the taxpayers. There’s always the ability to just run another referendum—particularly if they may not even be running it themselves!

Sen. Stroebel’s bill also sets a requirement to bid out the cost of purchasing supplies and equipment as well; Wisconsin is also one of only nine states that have no requirement to do so. Finally, the minimum standard for projects subject to this requirement is a reasonable $150,000. That would make Wisconsin still one of the 12 most lenient states for requiring competitive bids, and fourth most lenient for bidding for supplies and equipment.

Again, it shouldn’t be such a heavy lift to force the government to put the taxpayers where they belong—at the start of the conversation, rather than an afterthought. There will undoubtedly be critics who enjoy some personal incentive to defend the status quo, but education resources needlessly wasted are resources that can’t make it to teachers or classrooms.

Wisconsin should not be one of only three states with zero accountability to ensure these massive projects are done as affordably as possible. This bill is a smart move for taxpayers, school boards, and most importantly, students.

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