Minnesota's buy-American law has rocky first year

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2011 - 10:24 PM

The law says public agencies' uniforms and protective gear must be U.S.-made. That's easier to do in concept than in reality.

State Patrol Capt. Matt Langer. Patrol uniforms comply with the buy-American statute.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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What could be more patriotic?

If you're a public agency funded by American tax dollars, you use some of that money to support home-grown businesses and help create American jobs. It's a win-win-win, right?

In the case of a year-old Minnesota law, the reality isn't so clear-cut, as good intentions have run into thorny details.

The law says uniforms or protective equipment bought by public agencies must be made in the United States. Today, officials trying to comply often find themselves wrestling with a premium price for U.S.-made goods and difficulty getting equipment with the right specifications.

The original idea was to give Minnesota-based makers of protective equipment a fighting chance against discount imports, said state Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, the law's Senate sponsor.

"You run into this when you're passing laws," he said recently. "What the intent was, why the bill was passed, who the bill is aimed at and whether or not you actually end up putting the words on the piece of paper that actually came out the way you wanted it to."

He said he'd be willing to take another look at the law, for issues of clarity, but insisted it should remain on the books.

In Plymouth, police officers have spent the year test-wearing a variety of American-made products for durability, comfort and utility. But Chief Mike Goldstein said the department is not yet in compliance.

"No one is intentionally trying to usurp what the law is requesting, but until there are products available to us, we have to use things that meet our specifications, based on their wear and tear and wearability and affordability and accessibility," he said. "So we're caught in a quandary. We could find a very inexpensive product that is sole-sourced here in the U.S., from stem to stern, but we would go through it so quickly and spend more money over time replacing these items over and over and over. ... Trying to achieve that balance has been difficult."

A liberal interpretation

Eagan had just completed a trial with several brands of equipment and uniforms, both imported and U.S.-made, when the law took effect. The statute's language now is city policy. But Police Lt. Duane Pike said the city has taken a liberal interpretation of the law, which says agencies can use goods "manufactured outside of the United States if similar items are not manufactured or available for purchase in the United States."

According to Eagan's reading, "similar" can apply to features including color, pocket configuration and price.

"A lot of the stuff, like clothing, it just isn't made here," Pike said. "We already did tests that included everything. We weren't looking for American- or foreign-made, and when we were pulling stuff together, we realized almost all of it is made out of the country."

The statute does not spell out enforcement strategies or penalties. While the Department of Administration enforces the law for state agencies, it's up to cities and counties to police themselves, said Scott Kelly, staff attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities.

Last year, Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, moved to repeal the law in response to complaints that it amounts to an unfunded mandate at a time of financial stress for cities. "They're cutting back employees and reducing jobs," she said, "and we're telling them we know you can buy this T-shirt for $8 but you have to buy the $25 version because it's state law. I didn't think it was appropriate for the state to put that kind of mandate on local government."

That bill stalled, but Loon said last week that she plans to introduce it again this year.

Successes, too

There have been successes. The Minnesota State Patrol is largely in compliance.

Lt. Jean Cemensky, the patrol's purchasing agent, said she worried about the law's budgetary effect. It turned out the agency was already using U.S. vendors for almost the entire uniform, which has some distinctive specifications (maroon, anyone?) that haven't been among the mass-produced items made cheaply overseas.

The agency had only to change its patch vendor, from a Chinese company to one based in Florida. Plus, the patrol's hefty buying power, for about 565 uniformed employees, meant it could demand better pricing than it could for only a few dozen, she said.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, D-Virginia, the House sponsor of the law, said he doesn't buy the notion that U.S.-made merchandise is either that much pricier or different from similar items made overseas. Even if it were, he said, the investment is worthwhile.

"I don't think this is a big part of their budgets," he said. "But it's a point to be made, to make people think and a lot of people are starting to think. At least that's a start."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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