If you're a public agency funded by American tax dollars, you should use some of that money to support homegrown businesses and help create American jobs. What could be more patriotic?
In the case of a year-old Minnesota law, 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, a Democrat and one of the law's sponsors.
In Plymouth, a northwestern suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, police officers have spent the year testing out various 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 ... 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."
Eagan, a city south of St. Paul, had just completed a trial with several brands of equipment and uniforms, both imported and U.S.-made, when the law took effect. Police Lt. Duane Pike said the city has liberally interpreted 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.
The statute does not spell out enforcement strategies or penalties. While Minnesota's Department of Administration enforces the law for state agencies, cities and counties police themselves, said a staff attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities.
Last year, state Rep. Jenifer Loon, a Republican, moved to repeal the law after 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. ... 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.
There have been successes. The Minnesota State Patrol is largely in compliance.
Lt. Jean Cemensky, its purchasing agent, said the agency already was using U.S. vendors for almost the entire uniform, which has some distinctive specifications (maroon, anyone?) that haven't been mass-produced overseas.
The agency only had to change its patch vendor, from a company in China to one in Florida. With about 565 uniformed employees, the patrol's hefty buying power meant it could demand better pricing, Cemensky said.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, D-Virginia, the law's House sponsor, said he doesn't buy the notion that U.S.-made merchandise is either 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. ... At least that's a start."
(Contact Maria Elena Baca at mbacastartribune.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)