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Haslam’s Plan For More Outsourcing Gets Icy Reception From Tennessee Lawmakers

United Campus Workers unfurled a long list of people opposed to outsourcing.
Chas Sisk
United Campus Workers unfurled a long list of people opposed to outsourcing.

Hear the radio version of this story.

Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to outsource more state government work got an icy reception from Tennessee lawmakers Tuesday, but the skeptics may need to act fast if they want to stop it.

At a hearing, officials from the Haslam administration unveiled the results of a long-awaited study into outsourcing. They estimated the state could save nearly $36 million a year by turning services such as groundskeeping and janitorial work at state universities and government buildings over to private contractors.

They say that's money schools and agencies could put to good use.

But officials were met by dozens of chanting protesters from the United Campus Workers union. They unfurled three long petitions that they said had been signed by a combined 6,000 Tennesseans opposed to outsourcing.

Tom Anderson, a University of Tennessee employee and member of the union, said the Haslam administration has developed the outsourcing plan in secret.

"The legislators have been completely cut out. The voice of the people has been completely cut out. We're hear to show them that we will not be silenced."

Tennessee has already outsourced some government buildings. In 2013, it turned management of 6 million square feet worth of offices over to Jones Lang LaSalle, a Chicago firm that was also serving as a real estate adviser to the state. The Haslam administration says that deal is saving the state millions each year. 

The governor wants to take that idea still further. Officials note that Tennessee has about 94 million square feet of real estate, all told, including university buildings, prisons and state parks.

But Knoxville Republican Richard Briggs, whose district includes the University of Tennessee, says such thinking misses the toll on working people, like those who clean up at UT. He sees no reason to take work away from them.

"No one seems to understand why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are gaining the traction that they have and it's the phenomena that we've seen nationally. But I think I'm starting to get it," says Briggs.

But the Haslam administration says it's thought about workers, too. As a condition of the outsourcing contract, officials plan to make private firms rehire state workers to do the jobs. These workers would get the same benefits and pay as they did working for the government, and contractors would not be able to lay off anyone who is "productive and qualified."

This arrangement would cut into the savings, officials admit. But because outside experts would know how to do the work more efficiently, Haslam and others believe the state would still save tens of millions.

"What we want to do, whether it be with state buildings or higher education buildings, is to make sure that we're delivering the product in the best way that we can," Haslam says. "Nobody will lose their job over this. That's somehow gotten lost in all the discussion."

Officials added that they believe the Haslam administration has the legal authority to go ahead with outsourcing on its own, without needing legislators to sign off.

That troubles some state lawmakers. They noted that they, too, have the authority to block outsourcing by legislation.

But, at the very least, lawmakers should have the ability to review outsourcing contracts and make sure they deliver on promises.

"I think it's interesting that they've been talking about this for months, and everything we've heard about it was released about six minutes ago," says state Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. "This hasn't been an open process, there's not a lot of transparency, there's not a lot of people involved, and that's the reason why you're seeing a lack of trust."

Copyright 2016 WPLN News

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons
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