Lawmakers in Lansing are mulling a proposal to mandate that local and intermediate school districts effectively privatize transportation, custodial and food services within a year and a half. While we don’t doubt that there may be a modicum of cost savings that some districts would realize from such a measure, it strikes us as an unnecessary power grab by Lansing Republicans in an effort to undermine organized labor, especially when many local districts are already making the move towards privatizing some of the exact same services that the legislation is seeking to privatize.
House Bill (HB) 4306, which was co-sponsored by state Reps. Bill Rogers (R-Milford) and Hugh Crawford (R-Walled Lake, Wixom), currently sits in the House Education Committee. It would require that boards of education by June 30, 2012, agree to one or more contracts with a company or companies that provide food service, custodial, or transportation services. Translation? Privatize those services.
Yes, that is a proposal from a Republican — the majority House Caucus Chairman, no less, state Rep. David Agema (R-Grandville). If it seems strange that a small-government conservative would put this out, you’re not alone; it struck us as odd, too.
On one hand, we understand the legislation. The theory is that private companies provide services at lower cost so, on the face of it, the bill is about saving districts money. But on the other hand — the bigger, more powerful hand, mind you — we don’t get it. What happened to the Republican group-think that local governments make the best decisions for their constituents — a philosophy we generally subscribe to — rather than state or federal bureaucrats? This proposal simply flies in the face of the local control ideology.
State lawmakers should know that some of their local districts are already in the process of contracting with private companies for such services when it makes sense for their own bottom lines. For example, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools has already moved in such a direction by privatizing non-instructional services such as custodial services, and Huron Valley Schools have taken steps — albeit small ones — towards privatization of some non-instructional services like transportation management. Kudos to them, and we hope to see more of that if the numbers make sense, local constituents back it, and such a move wouldn’t negatively impact students.
We don’t necessarily buy all of labor’s logic behind their opposition to the bill. For example, the doomsday scenario outlined by local union representatives in which the lost jobs eventually down the line equate to lower funding for students and less money for local governments doesn’t quite pass the sniff test, although there is merit to some of the concerns labor officials raise.
For example, would there be lost jobs? In all likelihood, yes, and that’s a tough pill to swallow, particularly when the jobs that would be on the line are those that are already on the chopping block in this economy, given a recent push for more highly-skilled trades. But not every custodian, for example, would be unable to find meaningful employment and therefore lose their house and have to move their child or children out of a given school district. A private company could easily come into a local school district and hire back some or all of the employees who were laid off due to this legislation.
But we sympathize with the union argument. Newly-seated Republican legislatures around the region seem bent on attacking — or, at the very least, undermining — labor organizations. Michigan Republicans, it seems, are getting in on the act first debuted by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
A spate of legislation — including this one, and a proposal that would ostensibly eliminate binding arbitration under Public Act 312, among several others — has caused us to question whether the Republicans in Lansing are really about saving taxpayer dollars in this tough fiscal climate or are instead putting forth a slew of Trojan horses, trying to fool people into thinking that they are benign proposals when what the GOP really desires is the sack of organized labor in the public sector.
Don’t get us wrong. We know that labor costs are huge concrete slabs chained around the ankles of local budgets, and some reform is necessary. And we also understand that to the victors go the spoils. Republicans trounced Democrats in last year’s general election, and deservedly so. Michiganders voted in a more conservative state Legislature and governor, and gave the GOP an overwhelming majority that can quash pretty much any meaningful opposition without so much as breaking a sweat. So be it.
But this proposal — if state Republicans mean what they say about more local control and keeping Lansing out of our lives as much as possible — should cause them to sweat bullets.