Monday, July 12, 2010

News Flash: Republican Privatization Task Force Supports Chris Christie

A great deal of press attention has been given to the report issued by the New Jersey Privatization Task Force. In a nutshell, the report says that by engaging private contractors to provide for multiple services currently provided by public employees, the State could save about $210 million.

Now, the State budget is $29.4 billion dollars. This report is highlighting ways to save less than 1% of the State's annual costs. So at first blush, this seemed like much ado about nothing. But as I read the report, certain aspects of the analysis and certain facts leapt out at me.

First of all, this was a study about the privatization of services, not assets. While couched in terms about bringing competition into the provision of public services, it would be fair to say that this was a report analyzing how to take jobs away from public employees, i.e., another salvo in the Governor's war on public employee unions. In fact, the Civil Service laws and the Displaced Workers Pool are cited as impediments to privatization.

Second, there were 5 members of the task force. Dick Zimmer is a former Republican Congressman (and State Assemblyman and Senator). Todd Caligone is President of ANW/ Crestwood, a New Jersey paper company. Kathleen Davis is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Chamber of Commerce of South Jersey. John Galadank is President of the Commerce & Industry Association of New Jersey, a free enterprise advocacy group. P. Kelly Hatfield is a former Republican candidate for Congress.

The fact that this group issued a pro-privatization report is about as surprising as Donald Trump issuing a statement in favor of beauty pageants. In fact, this group is so pro-privatization that it is proposing privatization as a solution to problems created by privatization.

Third, this report makes clear that not every private service provider would be eligible to bid in this public service marketplace. Only qualified bidders with strong balance sheets would be eligible; contracts would be awarded based on merit-based criteria and follow a documented scoring system. So not only would there be no preference for minority owned businesses which have been locked out of certain industries for or small businesses, there would be an institutionalized bias against such bidders.

So make no mistake about it, this Report is a not a fact-finding endeavor, it is a means to promote Governor Christie's pre-existing policy goals.

For example, one privatization proposal is a school voucher program. It's a 5 year "pilot" program that starts providing 3,200 scholarships a year, and ramps up to 16,000 scholarships in year 5. Scholarships would be provided by private corporations and would be capped at the amount the scholarship-recipients' school spends per pupil. The scholarships can be used for public and private schools. Exactly what public service is to be provided by private service providers under this proposal is unclear. What is clear is that this same program has already been proposed by Governor Christie.

However, the proposal that pushes this report into the area of farce pertains to special education students. Those disabled students who are not making progress in their public schools could get a scholarship to attend either another public school or a private school. The scholarship would be capped at the lesser of the amount the unacceptable school spent on that student or the tuition and fees at a private school. There is no mention of the cost of transporting the child to and from the new school.

The problem is that, under current law, all students are entitled to a free appropriate public education. Which means that disabled students who are not making progress in their public school are entitled to attend private school on the public dime, i.e., at no cost to the student for tuition or travel. In other words, special education has already been privatized in this State.

But private schools charge too much. And private bus companies charge too much. So this particular venture into privatization has proven to be a budget buster for school districts, which are obligated to pay what the private service providers charge.

And so the solution is to partially privatize the payment of private school tuition, and shift the remainder of those costs plus the cost of transportation to the disabled student. Yes, this privatization proposal would increase the cost to the taxpayer of educating special needs students. A Special Needs Student Tax, if you will.

Clearly, this proposal is not about bringing competition into the special education services market. This is about reducing property taxes for the majority by making special needs students pay more for their own education.

Other privatization proposals suggest introducing the profit motive into areas that impact public health and safety. For example, the report suggests privatizing the investigation of Workmen's Compensation claims. I can just imagine the compensation of investigators being based on keeping awarded claims under a certain financial benchmark -- the way private insurance companies work. The report also suggests water and waste treatment facilities should be privatized, which gives rise to visions of accountants balancing the cost of completely purifying water against the cost of paying claims to the people who get sick from tainted water. And the report also suggests that hospital debt collection should be privatized. Which means people who cannot afford health care will now be hounded by private debt collectors.

This report is so blatantly biased and so transparent in its political motivation that one has to wonder whether or not the point was to actually promote privatization. Surely, the Governor knows that no proposals from so partisan a task force will be taken up by the Democratic-controlled legilature.

The only reasonable interpretation of this report is as a piece of campaign literature. This is Chris Christie polishing his far right credentials on the taxpayers' dime.

Now if we could only get Chris Christie to privatize his endless self-promotional activities and stop using the resources of the State to further his personal agenda and career.

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