Privatization of government services criticized
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Privatization of government services criticized

Date: March 14, 2007
By: Cliff Ainsworth and Sean Sposito
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The trend of privatizing state services came under fire last week following the apprehension of nearly two dozen suspected illegal immigrants who were working for a government contractor.

Gov. Matt Blunt has pushed for the privatization of some state jobs, and last year created an Office of Administration council charged with pursuing private sector options for work that is currently done by state employees.

But the administration came under fresh criticism for its stance after federal and state authorities apprehended 22 suspected illegal immigrants who were working as custodians in government offices for a janitorial service contracted by the state.

"Years ago, Democrats were opposed to the outsourcing of these kinds of services," said Senate Democratic Floor Leader Maida Coleman, adding that such jobs used to be performed by state workers. "Under Republicans, these jobs have gone to fly-by-night unethical contractors."

Others legislators, however, question a connection between privatization of government services and questionable practices.

"You can achieve waste, fraud and abuse either through government programs with government employees, or through private contractors with private employees," said Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin.  "You can achieve high productivity and excellence and value to the taxpayer through either one as well."

"Bad acts are not better or worse because the person perpetrating it is a private sector employee or public sector employee," Nodler added.  "Nor are heroic acts better or worse because the employee happens to be a private employee or public employee."

Until last week, state agencies were not required to make sure that state contractors checked the immigration status of their employees.

But after Sam's Janitorial Service had its contract with the state canceled for allegedly employing illegal immigrants, Blunt signed an executive order calling on all agencies to audit state contractors and ensure that they hire only legal workers.

The incident spotlighted potential pitfalls of a trend in states across the country to privatize some services in an effort to reduce the size of government and save money.

Dr. David Valentine, associate research professor at MU's Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs, said privatization of government services can be beneficial but that oversight is lacking.  Valentine said in sectors such as technology, where the private sector is more flexible than the government, contracting out services "makes sense."

"But in most of the things we see, government controls aren't as good as they need to be to make sure that somebody's not cutting corners or doing something illegal," Valentine said.

In the case of Sam's, the Oklahoma-based business had performed janitorial services for the state as far back as 1998, according to Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson, meaning its state contracts began with a Democratic administration.  The employees who were detained are being investigated for identity theft. 

Robinson said there was no relationship between privatization and the Sam's incident.

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, disagreed. "The more that you outsource the more you risk not having the type of control over those employees that you do over state employees," he said.

The flap prompted a quick condemnation from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which called on Blunt to require all janitorial work in state buildings to be done by state employees and blamed privatization for giving unscrupulous employers an excuse to cut corners and even skirt the law in pursuit of government contracts.

"At the end of the day, a contractor, his primary goal is to make sure that he makes maximum profit," said Jeff Mazur of the AFSCME.  "So if that means paying people substandard wages, if it means not providing health and other benefits to employees where state employees would get those benefits, all those things are on the table for a contractor. And that's what makes it a very dangerous game for the state to just will-nilly contract these services out."

Robinson noted that janitorial duties were now falling to state workers since Sam's contract was canceled.

In October 2006, Gov. Blunt issued an executive order to create the Interdepartmental Coordination Council for State Service Delivery
Efficiency.  In addition to pursuing options for privatization of government services, the council is charged with establishing criteria for when services should be contracted out.  The order appoints Commissioner of the Office of Administration or his designee as the council's chairperson.

Robinson said the council was still in the developmental stage.  About a dozen messages left by reporters with the Office of Administration to discuss the council and the state's private contracts were not returned.