California’s public sector unions are the proverbial broken record. Like clockwork, their annual push for legislation to demonize and snuff out privatization – basically, to protect the unions’ economic self-interest – has started in Sacramento.
The latest example comes from the Assembly’s approval of House Resolution 29, sponsored by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the nation’s largest government employee union. At its core, HR29 states, “the Assembly opposes outsourcing of public services and assets, which harms transparency, accountability, shared prosperity, and competition, and supports processes that give public service workers the opportunity to develop their own plan on how to deliver cost-effective, high-quality services.”
Do legislators have no sense of irony? The fundamental admission here is that government employees are not currently delivering “cost-effective” or “high-quality” services today, or else why would they need an opportunity to “develop their own plan” to do so?
If state legislators were paying attention they’d also notice that the lack of “transparency, accountability, shared prosperity and competition” with state workers is what has allowed them to fleece taxpayers and drive up costs for decades.
And while HR29 doesn’t create law – it’s more of an opinion statement – the anti-competitive tone it sets has raised some hackles from an interesting and broad mix of parties concerned about the message it sends.
Roughly 60 different organizations registered opposition to the bill, including the League of California Cities, California Contract Cities Association, California Chamber of Commerce, and over 40 cities and towns including Sacramento itself.
In its opposition letter, the League of California Cities summed up the municipal opposition succinctly, noting that local governments’ ongoing fiscal challenges demand flexibility in finding solutions to lower costs, including privatization. “Not only is this resolution harmful in its content, but this resolution is designed to frame future votes before legislators know the details of actual legislation and local impacts,” the League statement said.
The future votes refer to In the Public Interest, a national group, and its so-called “Taxpayer Empowerment Agenda,” which is cited in HR29 and is made up of a set of policies designed to make it difficult for governments to partner with private companies to delivery any services.
What has so many California cities concerned is that HR29 foreshadows a future push for piecemeal legislation to advance this anti-privatization agenda. And this concern is justified, for several reasons.
First, HR29 specifically states that, “the Assembly intends to introduce and advocate for responsible outsourcing legislation.” Given that this follows the statement that “the Assembly opposes outsourcing,” it would be reasonable to conclude that such so-called “responsible” legislation would be more intended to prevent outsourcing than improve it.
Second, the Washington State legislature recently considered AFSCME-sponsored legislation based on the Taxpayer Empowerment Agenda that, if it had passed, would have raised several barriers to competitive contracting for state services and undermined laws that encourage contracting to save taxpayer money.
Third, a similar effort is already underway in California. Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, has introduced three contracting-related bills this year based on this agenda, one of which would create an online database that would publish the pay rates of individuals employed by private companies.
While the current bills focus on state-level contracting, California legislators have shown no hesitation in passing legislation that limits the fiscal flexibility of local governments.
Interestingly, HR29 passed on a party line 42-22 vote, something Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters described as “underwhelming” since 13 “nervous nellies” – including 10 Democrats – chose not to vote.
Hopefully for state and local taxpayers, this suggests there may be some reluctance in Sacramento to actually continue the perennial anti-privatization push by unions. There are already enough laws in California making it difficult to compete government services to save money, and the state doesn’t need any more.
Leonard Gilroy is director of Government Reform at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.