Haslam defends tentative step toward more privatization

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democrats claimed on Tuesday that Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is displaying hostility toward state workers by looking to outsource the management of more government functions to the private sector, but Haslam dismissed the allegation as politics.

“Our first responsibility is to care for 6.5 million citizens,” Haslam told reporters as he discussed his efforts to find efficiencies in state government operations. “People who say government is about creating more government jobs, that’s not our responsibility.”

The Haslam administration last week posted a request for information from private companies about how they would operate a wide range of state government facilities, including state colleges and universities, prisons, hospitals, armories and state parks.

The governor stressed that his administration is only in the information-gathering phase and has not yet decided whether to proceed with more outsourcing.

“No matter what you’re running, you should always go back and examine and say, ‘Are we doing this the very best way possible?'” he said.

Senate Democratic leader Lee Harris of Memphis said that saving money shouldn’t be the only measure when it comes to deciding how to run the government. Haslam is trying to “treat armories and prisons the same as campuses,” Harris said. “And they’re not the same.”

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville called the governor’s initiative the latest move in his “privatization agenda.”

“There’s really not a governmental basis for doing this unless you just have a baseline hostility to the idea of public employees providing public services,” Stewart said.

Stewart pointed to a no-bid contract awarded by the Haslam administration to Enterprise Rent-A-Car in 2011 to replace the state motor pool. That deal ended up costing the state $739,000 even though employees only used $450,000 worth of vehicles.

“I just don’t think there was anything in our history of our privatization efforts so far under this administration that should give us confidence this is a good idea,” Stewart said.

The Haslam administration argued at the time that the deal saved money because the state was able to sell two motor pool lots for $1.6 million and no longer had to spend $200,000 in annual vehicle maintenance.

Thomas Walker, a spokesman for the United Campus Workers, said employees at public colleges and universities are worried about losing their benefits-paying jobs “in an outsourcing frenzy.”

“It will definitely turn decent jobs into bad ones, literally taking money out of the pockets of hardworking public servants,” Walker said.

Haslam was criticized two years ago when his administration converted a $1 million contract with Jones Lang LaSalle to assess the condition of state buildings into a multimillion-dollar contract to operate many buildings.

The real estate management company was among the dozens of major investments Haslam disclosed before his election in 2010. The billionaire governor has since placed all investments other than family-owned Pilot Flying J in a blind trust.

Haslam on Tuesday defended the Jones Lang LaSalle deal, saying that while his office is still collecting information, he estimates that the outsourcing deal has saved the state up to $10 million.

In his talk with reporters, Haslam returned several times to the arguments he has made in favor of outsourcing the management of hospitality facilities, marinas and golf courses at state parks.

Pressed on whether there should be limits to which government functions can be taken over by private contractors, Haslam said that some positions — such as park rangers — would always remain state jobs. For others, he said, “maybe there are people that can do better.”

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