CLINTON — A plan to construct a $2 million asphalt plant in Clinton may be stymied by Oklahoma legislators and general contractors who are concerned the owners are circumventing the free market.
Eleven counties in western Oklahoma have collaborated through their Circuit Engineering District to purchase land and award a construction bid for the project, but legislation may be proposed to stop it before it is built.
The issue was the topic of an interim study held Thursday before the state Senate subcommittee that oversees general government appropriations.
“It's not just the asphalt plant. We think the Circuit Engineering Districts have extended their reach,” said Bobby Stem, executive director of the Association of Oklahoma General Contactors.
The engineering district is one of eight that encompass all 77 counties in Oklahoma. The districts were created in 1998 to provide geographically adjacent counties collaboration options in designing, developing and maintaining county roads and highways.
The districts are funded primarily by the state Transportation Department, but also collect federal and county funds.
Stem said he will push for legislation that would limit the ability of these districts from developing means for services that already are available on the market.
He said the Clinton-based district should have requested a custom asphalt emulsion from one of three vendors that operate in the state.
Monte Goucher, the district's executive director, said the plant will save money and provide more lasting roads by developing an emulsion not available elsewhere.
The district will use $400,000 of private dollars to secure a $2 million loan for the project, he said, and will sell the emulsion initially to district counties. Expanding sales to additional districts is not out of the question later, he said.
“What the private sector doesn't like about this oil is that this means they're going to be selling less oil on the market,” he said. “We have to be responsible in what we do to make sure it meets the approval of the taxpayers and we're doing something that helps them.”
Gene Wallace, president of the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma, said the plant fits in with the districts' goal to increase efficiencies and save taxpayer money.
The districts are especially effective in rural areas, where services are limited.
“The people who elect us have demanded that we try to do it the most efficient way possible,” he said.
Subcommittee chair Sen. Bryce Marlatt, R-Woodward, said he would support legislation that curbs government growth.
Marlatt criticized Goucher for not requesting the state's asphalt vendors produce the emulsion.
“I don't know why we don't turn to the private sector first,” he said. “We're suing the federal government for getting involved in the health care business. Is that really what we want, the government competing with the private sector?”