Public purse not proper for punishment or reward
Mississippi could use more leaders like Commissioner of Public Safety Marshall Fisher. He says what he thinks, does what he says he is going to do.
Not a lot of “gray” in his approach.
That’s why it was no surprise when Fisher announced that the Department of Public Safety would no longer buy Nike products. Fisher, with 41 years in law enforcement, saw the sports gear company’s marketing campaign centered on famed NFL anthem kneeler Colin Kapernick as wrongheaded, at best. Tit for tat. Not going to support a business that doesn’t support America, in general, and law enforcement, in particular.
Troubling, though, was the immediate comment of Gov. Phil Bryant. His “you betcha” illustrates a wider trend in the Capitol that’s simply not good for taxpayers.
Here’s the nut of it: The only reason this state and others have bid laws is to keep officials from using money that is not theirs to favor political friends or punish political enemies.
No one should know this better than Bryant, who served 12 years as state Auditor of Public Accounts. The only reason the state has an auditor is to assure the public that their money is being used with absolute efficiency — and that means buying the best products and services at the best possible price — no politics.
Yet here’s what Bryant was quoted as saying: “He (Fisher) has a right to determine what vendors DPS does business with, and it’s not going to be with a company that pays an individual who has slandered our fine men and women in law enforcement.”
To be clear, he (Fisher) does not have the right to rule vendors in or out based on personal preference. Every person authorized to purchase with public funds has the obligation to write neutral specifications, seek offers from any and all sellers and evaluate the offers in light of whether the products or services meet the specifications. Then, except in unusual cases, the purchase is to be made from the vendor who makes the lowest offer.
Not doing that could land a person in court if not in prison. Book it. If DPS writes specs for, say, running pants and a suitable low bid from a sports equipment or other company is rejected because it includes Nike products, the stage has been set for one big and expensive lawsuit.
There’s no need to argue whether Nike was smart or dumb, pro-American or anti-American in selecting Kapernick for its campaign. People can make their own decisions about that as well as the overall matter of kneeling during the National Anthem. People, including Fisher and Bryant, are also absolutely guaranteed the right to spend their own money or not spend their own money based on how they feel about a company, product or service.
As officials or as citizens, Fisher and Bryant are 100 percent empowered to express their views as loud or long as they wish. They just can’t back their views with spending decisions.
For example, a mayor may love Fords and believe they are the best vehicles on the road. When purchasing vehicles for the city, though, the bid must go to Chevrolet if Chevrolet is lower and meets the specs — which must be brand-neutral.
The situation crystallizes a comment made more than once during this year’s regular and special session, to wit, “Elections have consequences.” That is a very true statement. The party in power, in this case Republican supermajorities in Mississippi, are in absolute control of making the laws and setting the policies they believe in.
That does not, however, and has never extended to purposeful use of public funds either to feather their nests with their supporters in the private sector or by denying public contracts to a business owner who backed a different candidate.
It’s less obvious, but this protection of the public purse protects public officials, too. Talk to anyone who has ever served and they’ll tell you about the lines that form. “Hey, I voted for you. Toss some business my way.” The official has to say, nicely, “It doesn’t work that way, but I will see what I can do.”
There are perks that go with power. They are plentiful. No one should be naïve about that. There are legal ways to nudge things around, too. Happens every day.
To make a flat statement that a manufacturer will be excluded from public business based on its advertising is to invite a needless lawsuit.
It would be a big lawsuit, and Mississippi — the taxpayers of Mississippi — would lose.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.