Our Views: Overdoing it on contracts?

Is contracting out of state operations to businesses the wave of the future? It’s certainly been a big agenda item for Gov. Bobby Jindal. Several of his privatization initiatives sparked controversy, from the big changes underway at charity hospitals to smaller moves that have laid off state employees in favor of private-sector contractors.

While that is not new, the Jindal administration’s willingness to use its powers to the fullest has not endeared some of the moves to lawmakers. The precious little input, or even notice, given to legislators has created a considerable backlash against privatization.

We do not object to privatization when its benefits to the taxpayer are demonstrated and its costs are transparent. It is not a panacea for government finance, or even always a guarantee of better performance in delivering services.

All that said, we wonder if there is not a danger of the Legislature overreacting to Jindal. For privatization, the principle ought to be openness and consultation. The Governor’s Office has occasionally failed these basic tests.

We favor oversight. We don’t necessarily want to make privatization impossible.

An administration laying off state workers should rarely, if ever, be able to do so without extensive public notice and approval by appropriate legislative committees, or the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget — the principal forum for some of these kind of discussions in the past. Often enough, the administration has refused to consult even the legislators whose districts are most affected by closures or reorganization of government agencies.

What would be an overreaction? Among other things, several bills in the Legislature would create new and unreasonable requirements for studies ahead of time, even though the Legislature has a fiscal office and other staff to monitor government.

Time is money in business. Government is not the same thing as business. But if the government can make a case that it makes sense to contract out a specific service, the time lines for the decision should not be layered up with reviews to the point that privatization is no longer a reasonable business option.

If one is annoyed with Jindal, these might seem needed speed bumps, but the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches has to be maintained if the administration of government — not just its political dimensions — is to reflect the demands of both efficiency and accountability.