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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam talks about education and his budget to the editorial board at the Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — In a letter to University of Tennessee system President Joe DiPietro, 20 state lawmakers criticize Gov. Bill Haslam's drive to privatize higher education building services and tell the UT president they've got his political back if he rejects doing it.

"The goal is laudable and the Tennessee government should always search for efficiences as good stewards of the taxpayer dollar," the 17 Republican and three Democratic lawmakers said of outsourcing in the letter.

"Nevertheless, serious concerns and questions are raised not only regarding the validity of the evaluation process but also state-wide outsourcing as a good business practice," they added.

The letter originated with Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, whose district includes UT-Knoxville.

Area lawmakers signing the letter include Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, whose district includes UT-Chattanooga. Others include Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland; Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma and state Senate Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston.

In their letter, the lawmakers said "not to be ignored but also very important is the effect of privatization on career employees and their families. A final consideration is the net effect on the local and state economy of moving taxpayer dollars out of state."

It notes that while the letter specifically references the UT system, it "would have general applicability to all state facilities."

Another concern: It's "difficult" to estimate maintenance services costs "when a major university has non-recurring events such as athletic events," according to lawmakers. "With privatization, the university loses the flexibility to move the right personnel to the right place at the right time."

Haslam, a Republican, has made outsourcing one of his top priorities, affecting not only the UT system, but the Tennessee Board of Regents, which includes Chattanooga State and Cleveland State.

He also is in the midst of soliciting proposals to privatize management of Fall Creek Falls State Park, despite the opposition of employees there, the Tennessee State Employees Association and Van Buren County elected officials.

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The United Campus Workers union, meanwhile, has repeatedly attacked the higher education plan, with workers saying it would lead to lower pay, benefits and job cuts. Haslam maintains they won't be harmed under the agreement and the state can still save money.

Lawmakers said they're concerned that "no longer will employees share the same goals and loyalty of their employer, the University of Tennessee. Jobs and benefits will be at the whim of an out-of-state company which leads to an unnecessary psychological insecurity for employees and their families."

Noting that Haslam has said each facility and institution can decide what works best for them and that they can choose to opt out, the lawmakers told DiPietro that "every member of the General Assembly has constituents that work for the state of Tennessee and will be watching your decision with a strong interest in protecting their jobs.

"We are certain you will take all of the above mentioned points into consideration when you announce your decision," their letter continues. "We especially want you to know that many members of the General Assembly will stand by you and support your final decision."

Briggs said by telephone the letter "isn't meant to be a challenge or an affront to the governor. It's just that we had some very serious reservations about the outsourcing process."

"Again," Briggs said, "it's not saying that in every single instance not to do it, but leave it to those in positions of authority."

The governor's office had no response Friday afternoon.

Haslam argues the move can save the state money. The state hired an accounting firm, which the United Campus Workers group quickly pointed out had done work for Haslam's campaign as well as having had several firm members contributing money to the campaign.

The narrow scope of the contracted "review," which was not an audit, verified the administration correctly applied a commercially available cost-model to project savings. But KraftCPAs offered no opinion about the model nor the estimated $35 million in projected savings.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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