“Gov. Haslam and his administration is willing to sell anything that isn't nailed down in state government.”
NASHVILLE — A Democratic lawmaker is criticizing what he describes as the "secretive" process being used by Gov. Bill Haslam to develop and award a contract for privatized management of state building operations and also questions the Republican governor's motivations.
"This issue is about jobs and families," Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, told reporters this week. "Now, Gov. Haslam's conspired to unemploy thousands of state workers behind closed doors. He's done so in a secretive manner. If it were not for local media in uncovering these, we might still be in the dark."
Clemmons' comments came during a Monday conference call organized by United Campus Workers, which is opposed to the Haslam administration's ongoing effort to develop a comprehensive building services outsourcing contract.
It could affect facilities management across 90 percent of Tennessee's government, including the University of Tennessee, which includes UT-Chattanooga, and the Tennessee Board of Regents, which includes Chattanooga, as well as Cleveland State Community Colleges.
State-operated hospitals like Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute and state prisons could also be impacted, as could state prison building facilities management.
"Gov. Haslam and his administration is willing to sell anything that isn't nailed down in state government," Clemmons charged. "I question his priorities, his motives."
Haslam Press Secretary Jennifer Donnals said any contract to manage state facilities "would include strict language prohibiting a potential vendor from initiating any reduction in force at any time during the contract period."
She emphasized that "no current qualified and productive employee will lose his or her job under this proposal while providing high quality service to our customers and saving tax dollars."
Clemmons, joined by Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, called for increased oversight by the Republican-dominated General Assembly.
"These are the taxpayers' buildings," said Michelle R. Martin, spokeswoman for the state's Office of Customer Focused Government, which is spearheading the outsourcing contract. "And as stewards of the taxpayers' dollars, we feel it is our responsibility to look at the practice. This is about fiscal responsibility, but it's also about the best service at the lowest possible cost."
Stressing that no final decision has been made, Martin also said if the administration decides to proceed, "no current qualified productive employee will lose their job because of a contract. And the state has included strict language from prohibiting a vendor from initiating any [reduction in force] at any time during the contract period."
The administration estimates the state could save $36 million annually through outsourcing, but higher education leaders have disputed that. State officials have contracted with an independent auditing firm to provide a review of the administration's savings claims.
Administration officials embarked on the current no-layoff conditions as a result of continuing blowback over outsourcing building management and maintenance of nearly 10 percent of the state's building maintenance and real estate management services to Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle in 2013.
The state contends it's saved $13 million so far on the contract. But JLL's contract proved highly controversial, with many state workers, including a number of people in Chattanooga, not getting hired by the publicly traded company.
During Monday's conference call with reporters, the United Campus Workers released an estimated 400 public comments posted to an administration website.
"I am one of the people whose job could be on the line if this endeavor goes through," wrote one commenter. "It seems to me that one of the first plans you had just wasted a large sum of 'our' money for a statewide testing program that fell flat on its face."
That was a reference to the state's new TNReady student-testing program in which the vendor's online testing melted down last spring during implementation.
Clemmons noted a recent new report by Nashville's WTVF, which raised questions about the administration's claimed savings on yet another Haslam outsourcing initiative involving the state's motor pool.
The state has already approved a list of "qualified respondents," who as interested vendors will now work with officials through a new-to-state-government process called "vested outsourcing" to shape the scope of the contract.
Also participating in the development of the contract are interested state agencies such as UT and TBR.
Melanie Baron, a University of Tennessee-Knoxville Ph.D. student, teaching assistant and United Campus Workers union member, said that's being done from Aug. 22 through Oct. 28 outside of public view.
"We still don't know and won't be able to know who those respondents are," Baron said. "In other words, they're down to the finalists, and the next step in this [vested outsourcing] process is an unprecedented new step in the state's procurement proceeding."
Baron said the request for proposals will be issued Dec. 1, with a Jan. 25 deadline for submission. The state would announce its intent to award the contract on Feb. 16. Only then will the files become public, Baron said. She expects the contract would be signed March 3 and go into effect March 16.
Rep. Clemmons, meanwhile, maintained that taxpayer "accountability will be lost" in all this.
He cited a Vanderbilt University poll from earlier this year showing most Tennesseans oppose privatization.
Clemmons called it "strange" that Haslam is using his own high job-approval rankings as "political capital to push through this outsourcing scheme to make his friends money rather than using some of that same political capital to pass something like Insure Tennessee that an overwhelming majority of Tennesseans support."
Haslam pushed his Insure Tennessee to expand Medicaid through Obamacare in the 2015 legislative session, only to see it flop twice among his fellow Republicans in a Senate committee. He has said if he sensed any change in sentiment, he would push the plan again.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.