Facing a $492 million revenue shortfall in the next fiscal year, Kansas lawmakers are looking for dollars just about everywhere.
So it’s no wonder that statehouse discussions have turned to whether it makes financial sense to privatize some governmental functions. Some legislators are pushing proposals that would require the state to undertake two yearlong studies focused on outsourcing government functions.
One proposal calls for setting up an 11-member council on privatization that would look at the issue and report to the 2012 session of the Legislature. The House has approved establishment of such a committee; the Senate has taken no action. Legislators who support the move say it has the backing of Gov. Sam Brownback. Creation of the council has drawn criticism in some circles from folks worried about actually growing government.
The privatization idea also is stretching to higher education.
Rep. Joe McLeland, R-Wichita, wants the Kansas Board of Regents to look at everything from selling or leasing residence halls to contracting with private companies to provide janitorial services on campuses. McLeland believes the Regents institutions should focus their energies and their dollars on their primary mission: educating students.
On its face, outsourcing government functions to the private sector appears to be a logical move. It’s often said that business can do things more efficiently — faster and for less money — than government can. Outsourcing sometimes works well, as it did a number of years ago when Kansas University achieved significant savings by privatizing its printing service.
However, the move to privatization could bring some unintended consequences, including the possibility of increased cronyism, as the state gets into the business of awarding huge contracts. It would require significant oversight to ensure that lawmakers and others in state government were not repaying political favors as they awarded governmental contracts.
A move to privatization would have a significant impact on a large portion of the workforces in Lawrence, Topeka and other Kansas communities where government jobs are plentiful. There’s also the question of how the state would ensure that private contractors provide an acceptable level of service for jobs currently performed by state employees over whom the state has direct responsibility.
If the prime motivation for privatizing government duties is money, why can’t state government show some self-discipline and save money by tightening its own belt and finding efficiencies? Rather than just turning the job over to private companies in the hope of saving money, maybe the state would be better off taking direct action to save taxpayers money by making its own operations more efficient.