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    A Times Editorial

    Bush's rush to privatize

    In his eagerness to turn more government services over to private companies, Gov. Jeb Bush seems willing to overlook questions about actually saving money.

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 3, 2001

    In announcing the appointment of a new "director of efficiency" five months ago, Gov. Jeb Bush said "she will help guide our efforts toward achieving a more limited government that spends our taxpayers' hard-earned money in the wisest and most efficient manner." The appointee, Ruth Sykes, was known for her no-nonsense approach to cutting costs in the U.S. Air Force, and the subtext was clear to those who understood Bush's efforts to dramatically reduce civil service protections: He wanted to replace public employees with private ones.

    Bush now has his wish. The Florida Legislature loosened rules that made it tough to get rid of public employees, and his staff already was preparing to privatize the prison food delivery system before the bill had even passed. On his high-speed road to privatization, though, Bush has left more than just his new efficiency czar behind. The growing questions about whether his massive privatization plans will actually save taxpayers money are coming not merely from his political opponents or from public employee unions. They are coming from business representatives and Republican legislators.

    "I believe strongly in the competitive delivery of government services," Dominic Calabro, president of the fiscally conservative Florida TaxWatch, told the Tampa Tribune. "But if it's not done right and in a thorough, disciplined and accountable fashion, it can backfire."

    Calabro's comments are significant, given that his organization has long supported privatization as a potential cost-saving measure. Also significant are the comments of Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who has urged the governor to slow down, and told the Tribune: "Privatization is meaningless unless you can show some benefit." But perhaps the most noteworthy turn of events came from the efficiency czar herself. She quit in April, agitated that the administration was moving so fast that it wasn't even bothering to evaluate whether private contracts would save money or whether public employees could perform the services more cheaply and efficiently. Upon her departure, Bush merely shrugged: "There could have been a disagreement in approach, but life goes on. We'll get someone else."

    What Bush meant was that he would find someone else who would agree to privatize without bothering to measure the possibilities or the results. Just ask Andy McMillian, the highly respected 21-year director of the state's Division of Retirement, what happens when you question whether privatization will be effective. He did so last year, and was fired.

    Since Bush clearly is not inclined to listen to dissenting voices within his own administration, maybe the Republicans who control the Legislature can help him. They might begin by asking why he is trying to grant an estimated $58-million contract for prison cafeteria operations to Aramark Corp., a company that was the primary food service provider for last year's Republican National Convention. They could ask whether the need to provide extra security for the civilian employees within the prisons will offset the potential savings. They might ask what will happen to the current prison employees, should Aramark not hire them, and whether they will have similar benefits, if Aramark does hire them.

    More important, lawmakers can ask whether the state's public employees were given a chance to bid for the services themselves. That's precisely the type of work Sykes did in the Air Force, and she found that public employees often provided the better deal for taxpayers. From all appearances, she quit her efficiency job because Bush wouldn't let her pursue that course.

    Bush claimed to want privatization because it might save money. But his clumsy rush to eliminate 5,000 state jobs looks more like a political ideology than a management theory. Maybe he wants to eliminate public jobs, even if the private contracts cost more, simply so he can brag he cut the public payroll. If that's the case, then public employees won't be the only ones who suffer. So will taxpayers, and they may be less likely to buy his "less government" slogans in 2002.

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