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GOP joins chorus of critics on privatizing

Problems with the company running state personnel issues have Bush allies seeking more oversight.

By JONI JAMES
Published January 27, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - Ongoing problems in the state's new payroll system are accomplishing what years of complaints by state employee unions and Democrats could not: Republican resistance to the idea of privatizing state government.

Six years after Gov. Jeb Bush began his push to outsource government services to shrink state employee rolls, Republican legislative leaders are starting to push back, saying the trend often has led to questionable decisions and lax oversight.

Republican leaders in both chambers say they will consider how to improve oversight of the state's contracts with private vendors. The annual legislative session starts March 8.

The impetus: A seven-year, $278.6-million contract with private vendor Convergys to run the state's personnel system.

Since the rollout of People First late last year, thousands of state employees have had problems with their paychecks, health insurance or vacation time. The mistakes have affected newly elected lawmakers' ability to access health care, as well as docked state troopers overtime pay during the holiday season.

The problems, in just a few months, have given voice to what privatization critics have said for years: That when state government turns over its business to the private sector and sheds its employees, it can run the risk of losing some control.

Bush and his staff have said such a major conversion as the personnel system would inevitably have problems because it involved moving from a 20-year-old system serving 120,000 employees across 38 state agencies. They say they think Convergys is on the path to remedying the problems. Plus, they note the system saved the state $13-million last year.

But several key Republican lawmakers are unconvinced.

"What can we do about Convergys now? We are stuck," Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, said Wednesday as she chaired the Senate Government Oversight and Productivity Committee.

Among the witnesses before Argenziano's committee Wednesday were a recent retiree who had $900 erroneously deducted from his first pension check, and a disabled Department of Children and Families worker who has yet to receive a paycheck due 10 days ago, forcing her to go without pain medication.

"The implementation has been awful. I feel like no one has been guarding the state's or our employees' interest," Argenziano said.

The sentiments are similar across the rotunda.

"We moved too fast. There was too much urgency to privatize," Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs, chairman of the House Administration Council, said Tuesday in a meeting with Speaker Allan Bense. "We didn't get some of the planning and preparation done. That will tend to give the entire operation a black eye," said Brown, a small-town insurance agent and one of the most conservative members of the House.

Republican critics, so far, have given few details about what changes they might propose. But their comments suggest Bush no longer has the broad support to privatize state services that he enjoyed early in his administration.

Bense said Tuesday, "I don't want to privatize if it's not more efficient and saves a little bit of money. ... I don't think that compromises my Republican principles."

Lawmakers' criticism comes nearly a year after Bush acknowledged his office had not done the best job justifying privatization efforts, prompting him to establish a "Center for Efficient Government" that now reviews all privatization initiatives before they are put up for bid.

Bush has also requested $1-million more in 2005-06 to improve the state's ability to negotiate contracts. "We have to get better at procuring and monitoring the contracts," Bush said last week.

But Bush's efforts haven't been enough to quell lawmakers' concerns.

Argenziano, who has been holding committee hearings on the topic since late last year with Senate President Tom Lee's approval, says she is convinced the governor's push to privatize services has often been short on process, leading to contracts that aren't always in the state's best interest.

Perhaps major contracts or outsourcing efforts should be reviewed by a legislative committee before they are signed, she said.

"I'm not an attorney, but I can look at some of these contracts and see where the business is getting something over on the state," Argenziano said. "I want to inject some legislative oversight back in the process."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Joni James can be reached at 850 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 27, 2005, 00:40:21]


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