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Furlough bill threatens private contracting

By Paul Snyder
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The specter of micromanagement looms over a bill that would prevent private contractors from doing the work of furloughed state employees.

“We need to make sure we’re not tying our hands more than we should be,” said state Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo. “You don’t want to put one blanket mandate out there and then just have to retract it with another one.”

Clark is co-sponsoring a bill that would prevent furloughs that cost more money than they save. The bill’s primary aim is to exempt from furlough state jobs — such as making unemployment and disability determinations — that are paid for with federal money. The state’s 60,000 employees now are required to take 16 days of unpaid furlough in the current biennium.

But a measure in the bill would prohibit the use of privately contracted workers on jobs that would otherwise be done by furloughed employees.

That measure creates a gray area for state agencies such as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. WisDOT has attracted lawmakers’ attention this year because the agency uses private consultants on road projects, and audits showed that, in some cases, state employees could have done the work for less money.

Chris Klein, executive assistant to WisDOT secretary Frank Busalacchi, said the agency has never used a private consultant to replace a furloughed worker. But the agency has a limited staff, he said, and furloughs do not make it easier to plan state jobs and federal stimulus projects.

“We’re always going to have to hire consultants,” he said. “The volume of work we have is simply too large.”

Furthermore, Klein said, both private consultants and WisDOT staff often work together on projects, so it is hard to determine who performs what work on a certain day.

State Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the bill is not intended to force agencies to break down who performed work on what day.

“The obvious case would be an agency that’s never contracted out before and starts to now that furloughs are in place,” he said. “I don’t know that that’s happened, but the goal here is not to play ‘gotcha’ with state agencies.

“If you have contracted employees already working on a project that furloughed workers might also be on, I’m sure we could look at exemptions.”

But those exemptions are not defined in the bill and could allow for disputes over whether it is appropriate for private contractors to work on particular days.

Micromanaging state agencies should not be the Legislature’s duty, but that might be the result of a bill that tries to cover too much ground, said state Rep. Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha.

“It’s not something that can be fixed at the 30,000-foot level,” he said. “If you can do something to help the state save money, that’s something we should be doing. But every time we try to solve this big problem, it seems like we make it worse.”

Clark said lawmakers might have to tweak the bill’s prohibition of private contractors on certain projects and better define what exemptions will be available.

“Of course, the potential for the bill to become more convoluted is always there,” he said. “The thing is, we can’t anticipate all possible contingencies. At some point, you have to leave some discretion to the departments.”

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