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Public Interest Group Challenges Privatization Of Local, State Government Services

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As more cash-strapped municipalities consider outsourcing services to try to save money, one public interest group is hoping to turn privatization efforts into a debate over taxpayer control.

In the Public Interest, a non-profit that tracks privatization, plans to roll out a legislative agenda on Tuesday, pushing for transparency and accountability laws where outsourcing is under consideration for services that include managing prison systems, transit systems and water authorities.

"We want to go on the offense," said Donald Cohen, the group's chair. "We really find that when we take it out of the partisan frame -- the labor [versus] business frame -- these are good-government measures and we can get support from folks that just want to manage government well. That includes conservatives who don't want to see corporations take over public control."

Potential savings from privatization can be dubious. Still, state and local governments across the country have outsourced public services to private companies in an effort to straighten out their budgets. Through its own recent polling, Cohen said In the Public Interest has found that respondents are far less likely to support privatization when it's framed as an issue of taxpayer control of tax-funded services.

Cities and states often must relinquish control over public services and space in such deals, as Chicago did leasing its parking meters to a private company for 75 years. In the for-profit prison world, companies have been known to seek contracts guaranteeing a certain level of occupancy over the long term, an arrangement that government watchdogs say works against the public interest.

Privatization plans have been a growing concern for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, or AFSCME. Like state laws that have weakened public-sector collective bargaining, privatization has helped erode AFSCME's membership as public agencies are transformed into non-union workforces. The union recently dispatched one of its D.C. communications deputies, Blaine Rummel, to In the Public Interest to work as a senior strategist under a grant.

"One of our big objectives is to engage in some narrative change around the issue of outsourcing," Rummel said. "This legislative agenda is part of that -- to move some simple commonsense ordinances and bills in places where not only they can pass, but where folks might not expect these sort of measures to be introduced, including red states."

The group plans to advocate that local governments post details of their contracts online, that contractors open their books to the public, and that contract workers be paid a living wage when paid with public money.

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