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In Our View, Jan. 3: Privatize Services

Competitive contracting improves agencies, saves money; local jail system shows how

The Columbian
Published: January 3, 2010, 12:00am

For 2010, all levels of government should resolve to stop coddling public workers by exempting them from the recession that has devastated virtually every corner of the private-sector economy.

But can the politicians — many of them tied to public-worker unions — join agency leaders and contract negotiators in getting tough on benefits, privatizing government services and saving countless tax dollars? Of course they can, and Clark County’s jail system is helping show the way.

When county officials didn’t like the performance of the jail’s privatized medical contractor, they did something rarely seen in today’s government. They got rid of the medical contractor and hired a new one. Not only will medical services improve for inmates, but spending for inmate care will be cut by 22 percent, or $700,000.

At least those are the goals, and if they’re not met, we have every reason to believe the county will get rid of the new contractor, put the services out to bid again and get another, better and perhaps less expensive third contractor.

Are you paying attention, city, county, state and federal governments? The capacity for competitive contracting is real and vast. Occasionally the politicians are courageous enough to expedite privatized services by passing meaningful legislation. In 2002, Washington state lawmakers passed the Personnel System Reform Act, which allowed agency managers to seek competitive bids to lower the cost of delivering services to the public. But as Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center pointed out in a recent essay, “little competitive contracting has occurred” in intervening years because “an agency’s contracting authority is itself subject to mandatory collective bargaining.”

And, of course, union negotiators won’t relinquish that stranglehold on their monopolies.

The News Tribune of Tacoma opined in a recent editorial: “Some state employees would be willing to make the same sacrifices that private sector workers have made. They understand that the people they serve are suffering, and that holding onto a job during the worst economic decline since the Great Depression is no small feat. But their union leadership refuses to budge. The (state) unions won’t give an inch on pay and benefits, even if it means sending some of their members to the unemployment line.” And the same holds true for clinging to the antiquated requirement that shackling competitive contracting to mandatory collective bargaining.

We agree with Mercier, that lawmakers should simplify the 2002 law and remove the requirement. This would not banish public-worker unions. To the contrary, Mercier writes, “Public employees should be encouraged to participate in competitive bidding processes, but union leaders should not exercise a veto over a management decision that a public service be improved and streamlined through price competition.”

In another area — the top of the federal government — Americans have seen that public workers are unwilling to share in the sacrifices required by this recession. USA Today reported recently: “Federal employees making salaries of $100,000 or more jumped from 14 percent to 19 percent of civil servants during the recession’s first 18 months.” During that time, 7.3 million jobs were lost in the private sector. And here’s one gimmick that’s used: “Many top civil servants are prohibited from making more than an agency’s leader. But … when the Federal Aviation Administration chief’s salary rose, nearly 1,700 employees had their salaries lifted above $170,000, too.”

Elected officials, put down the budgetary crying towels and get serious about making public workers share in the sacrifices that private-sector workers thus far have borne by themselves.

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