What Would Jefferson Think?

Private business can do it better

As state legislators consider Sen. Howard Stephenson’s Senate Bill 45 and Rep. Craig Frank’s House Bill 75, they should recall the words of Thomas Jefferson: “It is better for the public to procure at the market whatever the market can supply; because there it is by competition kept up in its quality, and reduced to its minimum price.”

Put simply, if the private sector does it already, government probably shouldn’t do it itself.

Now just imagine Jefferson’s reaction to The Salt Lake Tribune‘s Feb. 3 editorial (“Privatization: State targets local government services,” Our View) using government-run golf courses and skating rinks-both commercial operations commonly run by private sector businesses – as examples of “an excellent use of tax dollars.”

This might be true in a fictional world of unlimited tax dollars and no fiscal constraints. But in a world with serious challenges, maintaining and modernizing our critical infrastructure, keeping our streets safe, and educating our children, does it really make sense to spend taxpayer dollars on running public golf courses, servicing vehicle fleets and running print shops?

Often, this government “mission creep” goes unnoticed by citizens because public officials do not draw a bright line between those activities most appropriately performed by government and those that can be performed by private-sector providers.

If enacted, HB75 and SB45 would require governments statewide to draw that bright line.

Under the bills’ provisions, the state and the largest cities and counties would conduct a regular inventory of government activities to determine whether each activity is “inherently governmental” (i.e., is it a job only government can do?) or “commercial” (i.e., is it a service or good that can normally be obtained from private enterprise?).

The bills would help citizens see how much government activity is devoted to performing non-core functions. And government agencies would be equipped with the necessary information to allow them to concentrate on their core functions, while exploring new opportunities to seek more efficient and effective means of service delivery by partnering with the private sector for commercial services.

Applying similar thinking, the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act in 1998. Federal agencies perform these inventories annually, and have identified many activities like data collection, administrative support and payroll services that could be provided by the private sector. A similar, state-level inventory undertaken by Virginia in 1999 identified 205 commercial activities being performed by the state.

HB75 and SB45 do not require governments to privatize government services, as opponents will try to claim. Rather, the bills ask public officials to itemize and categorize what their agencies and departments are doing with our tax dollars. Some officials could opt to outsource an activity after reviewing the inventories. But as long as the officials protect the public interest by negotiating performance-based contracts that generate cost-savings and ensure an equal or higher level of service quality, taxpayers will be better off.

What was true in Jefferson’s day is equally true today: Government should focus on performing core functions well. Every day families and businesses have to evaluate their spending priorities and make economic trade-offs to take care of first things – mortgage payments, payroll, and health care – first. Government should, too.

This article originally appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune.