Recently I was involved in a spirited debate about the validity of red light cameras here in Albuquerque. Many involved were coming from the perspective of road safety and their personal experiences on the roads of Albuquerque. Some stated that they wished they were on every corner, others stated that their experience with an expensive ticket had taught them to drive more carefully... or at least drive more carefully when going through an intersection with a camera. What I thought was being missed during this exchange, however, was the basic question, should basic local government services, like the enforcement of our traffic laws, be contracted out to private companies?
The usual argument for 'contracting out' services is that a private company can be more efficient with their labor force, have more legal leeway in their practice, and the ability to implement measures without political repercussions. The end result is supposed to be a cost saving benefit to the tax-payers. In this case the cops get freed up to do some more quality police work and our streets become safer.
A recent study by The Progressive States Network
entitled Privatizing in the Dark:The Pitfalls of Privatization & Why Bud...
illustrates that these "public-private partnerships" rarely turn out to be the money-savers that were sold to the public. When our local government turns over local services to a private company it usually entails a loss of general oversight and accountability and a lack of accounting mechanisms to see if the public is actually saving money.
If we take a look at some local and regional government outsourcing examples, it becomes evident that there is generally a problem. Recently we witnessed a problematic Super Tuesday. The high number of provisional ballots led to a number of questions, many of which focused on the integrity of the registered Democrat voter role for the state of New Mexico. What we learned was that due to the outsourcing of our election hardware and software to the private company ES&S
, the Secretary of State needed to be granted permission to access the NM voter role before sending it off to the Democratic Party to use in the caucus. Many have speculated about what may or may not have happened to this voter role after it had been released that may have corrupted the data. All conversations in the media have just taken as fact that the data that came from the private company ES&S was valid. The public cannot be sure that the information provided on the voter role was valid. The Secretary of State could audit the machines, but the Secretary of State was put into office with money contributed by ES&S so a flagrant conflict of interest arises.
Another example is the privatization of NM prisons. NM has the highest rate in the country of its incarcerated housed in private prisons. There has been a rise in murders, rapes, and disastrous working conditions
since our state began privatization. Many of the individuals of such crimes are held accountable but the system itself is not subject to the oversight of the state and its citizens. When housing inmates becomes a business that we can't regulate, we're setting ourselves up for major problems.
When we examine what's at stake concerning privatization, questions arise as to the soundness of outsourcing everything that can be outsourced. Our children are tested using private testing measures, we use electricity that is priced and regulated by a private company, water rights are being purchased at an alarming rate by private interests. Where do we as citizens draw the line? Is not government the very entity we pay taxes to in order to perform these services? If government is to outsource its duty it has towards its citizens, what recourse are we to have when something goes wrong?
The article listed above calls for Privatization Transparency Legislation. This would call for enacting laws that require companies to prove that they are actually saving the tax-payers money. Also, budgetary measures would need to be taken to show the amount of government services that are privatized. This information would be required to be readily available to the public online. Finally, there should be legislation put in place which bans "pay to play" contributions meaning that companies bidding on service contracts are not allowed to contribute to the campaigns of government officials.
It would be naive to think that politicians solely have the tax-payers money in mind when they out source many these government services. There are political agendas aimed at altering the relationship between government and citizen and privatization is a natural means to that end.
I would suggest that the debates over red-light cameras and their validity continue and with even more vigor. For what's at stake is not solely inconvenience of more traffic tickets. What's at stake is our fundamental access to the channels of oversight and accountability for the services we are entitled to, for which we pay for and indeed the reason why local governments were formed in the first place.
-Thanks to Laura Paskus for the article cited.