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VOL. 40 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 26, 2016

Rare wins for Democrats on guns, outsourcing

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Legislative Democrats got a chance to beat their chests a little bit after a proposal to allow guns in the state Capitol and Legislative Plaza failed, and they hope to do the same with outsourcing.

In a press conference detailing the dumping of a proposal for guns on Capitol Hill, they also touched on the possibility the governor’s administration wants to take security away from the Tennessee Highway Patrol and put it in the hands of a private company.

Democrats say emails from the commissioner of General Services and director of outsourcing and facilities show they discussed the idea and believed it was a good time to move forward with security outsourcing.

State Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis and Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville sent a letter to General Services Commissioner Bob Oglesby asking his “true intentions” on outsourcing security.

Clemmons says the Highway Patrol serves “honorably” in its security role at the Capitol complex and notes, “I wouldn’t trust anybody else with the security of the Legislative Plaza or the Cordell Hull Building with legislators’ security, the citizens’ security and the children who are up there on a daily basis.”

Gov. Bill Haslam says he doesn’t know where Democrats came up with the issue, according to reports.

Oglesby responded to Harris and Clemmons, telling them in an August 2015 email security was part of an “internal discussion” about addition facilities support services where the state might find outsourcing savings. But no “real consideration” has been given to outsourcing THP security at Legislative Plaza, the State Capitol or for the lieutenant governor or House speaker, according to a Department of General Services spokesman.

Yet, Clemmons says, “I think this is just one more area where, despite facts to the contrary, it’s evidence of the governor’s massive privatization and outsourcing scheme, and things continue to unfold as information is produced. I don’t know why he has continued to deny it or act like he’s not dead-set on doing it because all the evidence is to the contrary.”

Big plans

Everything from state parks to prisons to universities is under consideration for outsourcing.

The governor is ready to pour $30 million into Fall Creek Falls and Montgomery Bell state parks, possibly to dress them up so vendors will want to run them. The state didn’t find any takers last year when it looked for private companies to handle parks’ hospitality functions, mainly because facilities were in poor shape.

So why not spend a little money on the front end in hopes of saving money on the back end? It sounds good anyway.

Terry Cowles, the state’s director of Customer Focused Government, told senators early this legislative session Tennessee has saved $13.3 million from a “baseline” figure over the last two years in facilities management by outsourcing it through JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle).

Testifying before the Senate State & Local Government Committee, Cowles said the state needs to take advantage of technology and other methods to save money through a “deliberate and collaborative process.”

Democrats dispute those numbers, and on the whole people are getting a little defensive.

The Haslam administration even agreed recently to have an outside firm look at privatization of university building maintenance before it goes forward.

Haslam’s decision came after a UT-Knoxville administrator was castigated – to a degree – when he told the university’s student newspaper the state’s outsourcing plan for colleges, prisons and state parks would be a “one-size-fits-all” approach disastrous for UT-K.

UT system President Joe DiPietro called the comments by Dale Irvin, a facilities administrator, “regrettable,” and said Irvin’s beliefs were not the university’s position.

These types of mixed messages are growing more common. For instance, the governor has said all along universities would be given the choice to opt out.

But when former Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said community colleges and technical schools would not participate in privatization, the Haslam administration said it was too early for him to make such a decision.

Now this dust-up with Irvin swirls as he casts doubt on whether UT could save $55 million across the system and $12 million at the Knoxville campus. He contends the figures don’t include fees the university would have to charge, according to reports.

The Haslam administration says Irvin’s position is off base.

A widespread blunder

Local systems and teachers have never been responsible for developing questions and formats for standardized tests.

But in a tip of the cap to the days of paper and two No. 2 pencils, the state is being forced to abandon the computerized version of TNReady, a testing system created by Measurement Inc.

Tennessee awarded the North Carolina-based vendor a $108 million contract to develop and implement the testing system. Luckily, the state has paid only a small portion of that so far, according to reports, because the Monday morning students started taking the tests, the Measurement Inc. system failed.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is still trying to figure out how to handle the mess. Gov. Haslam is ready to give teachers a break and allow test scores to count toward their evaluations only if they help.

This is what happens when the entire school year revolves around one test.

Of course, the state isn’t really taking into consideration how much local school systems spent statewide when they started scrambling to buy the computers and bolster their Internet systems so they could give the new test.

It’s many, many millions of dollars, but who’s counting, all for the sake of putting high-stakes tests on a computer system. But when a state vendor is involved, it seems nobody counts the costs.

New exploration

The state’s Department of General Services recently issued a request for information from vendors to advise the state and analyze the use of public-private partnerships in potential large-scale building construction projects, those greater than $100 million.

“Other states have successfully used P3s in construction projects, and this RFI is the first step in studying if such an approach will work here in Tennessee,” department spokesman Dave Roberson says via email.

It’s simply to gather information from the vendor community, he says, about the potential for a private company and the government working together on a project to serve the public, possibly to finance, build and operate a government building.

The RFI doesn’t have anything to do with plans for a new state museum, according to Roberson, who notes the department is still in the information-gathering stage. “If we decided this would be a good approach for us we would use it on some future project,” he says.

Asked for comment on the RFI, Clemmons and Harris hadn’t read it and weren’t sure how it fit in with the rest of Haslam’s plans.

But Clemmons says, “I suspect it’s the governor carrying out his planned scheme to privatize most of these state buildings across the state and continue down the path of privatization and outsourcing he seems intent to do, despite what anybody says to the contrary or whether it’s worked before or hasn’t worked before, and whether it saves the state any money or not.”

Harris, who traveled the state with Clemmons talking to university workers about outsourcing, believes the governor is jeopardizing the public’s view of him.

“I think a lot of his legacy is starting to get tarnished by what’s going on in the last term and what’s going on with respect to outsourcing,” Harris says. “I just don’t think this last term should be about how many state employees we can get rid of. I don’t think that’s a good legacy, and I don’t think that’s the right direction for this last term.”

Final analysis

Privatization can work sometimes. Other times it’s a dismal failure.

The food served at MTSU baseball games is a prime example.

Gone are the days an athletic department employee grilled burgers just outside the old concession stand, replaced by overpriced concoctions shipped in from who knows where after the university built a new stadium.

Obviously, that gets down on the bottom rung of public concerns – unless you’re at a ball game and starving.

But privatization is no panacea, whether you’re eating Blue Raider burgers, taking standardized tests or running the metal detector at the Legislative Plaza.

If Democrats can turn back what appears to be a widespread outsourcing plan, they’ll be able to thump their chests a little more. As a super-minority, they have to take what they can get.

Sam Stockard can be contacted at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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