Iowa legislators are complaining about a Chicago contractor’s decision to buy steel from Mexico for the new state prison under construction in Fort Madison. Senator Tom Hancock, a Democrat from Epworth, brought up the subject early this morning  during remarks on the senate floor.

“At this point in time I’ve got a burr under my saddle,” Hancock said, “and I guess I need to say my peace here.” Hancock told his fellow senators that he is “disturbed” by the general contractor’s decision to buy steel trusses made in Mexico. “Shouldn’t we be buying these trusses and other related products from Cascade Lumber, a family-owned company in my district, or from Voggenthaller in Dubuque who makes these trusses?” Hancock said. “And I know there are other senators in this chamber who have these very same businesses that manufacture these trusses in their district and in our state.”

Hancock criticized the bidding process which awarded the prison contract to the lowest-bidder. Senator Gene Fraise (FRAY-zee), a Democrat from Fort Madison, is watching construction of the prison and he praises the contractor for being ahead of schedule.

“(I’m) not happy with the fact that the steel’s coming out of Mexico,” Fraise says. “But the contractor’s agreed to do it for so many dollars and if he can do it cheaper — money in his pocket.” Fraise and Hancock support new “buy Iowa” requirements for future state construction projects and it appears there may be a move to pass legislation on the issue.

But Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs says it won’t be easy. “It’s tough stuff to work on that, to work on preferences. Preferences are have to enforce, at times tough to write in constitutional ways,” Gronstal says. “…We’re going to be cautious about how we proceed, but I think Iowans are not particularly happy that’s being spent to build a new prison is not only going out of state, it’s going out of country.”

This was an issue in the 2010 gubernatorial race, as former Governor Chet Culver’s administration approved hiring the Illinois contractor to build the new state maximum-security prison. Culver agreed to a project-labor agreement on the project, too. Governor Branstad and his fellow Republicans have criticized such agreements, saying they add undue labor costs to construction projects.

Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley of Chariton says he finds it ironic that Democrats are now complaining about the purchase of Mexican steel for the prison. “The project-labor agreement…really drove the cost up tremendously,” McKinley says. “That’s part of the reason that I suspect the winning contract had to go and look for the cheapest prices possible.”

McKinley and other Republicans say the state process for awarding construction project has “failed” and it’s time for major changes.