Archive for the ‘Privatization’ Category

Deregulation Crashes and Burns

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is far from reaching a conclusion on what caused an unattended train with 72 tanker cars filled with crude oil to roll downhill and crash into the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, setting off a huge explosion that killed at least 15 people. But that hasn’t stopped Edward Burkhardt, the chief executive of the railroad, from pointing the finger at everyone in sight — except himself.

Burkhardt first tried to blame local firefighters who had extinguished a small blaze in the train before the larger accident, and now he is accusing his own employee — the person who was operating the train all by himself — for failing to apply all the hand brakes when he parked the train for the night and went to a hotel for some rest after his 12-hour shift.

Whatever were the immediate causes of the accident, Burkhardt and his company — Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) Railway and its parent Rail World Inc. — bear much of the responsibility.

Burkhardt is a living symbol of the pitfalls of deregulation, deunionization, privatization and the other features of laissez-faire capitalism. He first made his mark in the late 1980s, when his Wisconsin Central Railroad took advantage of federal railroad deregulation, via the 1980 Staggers Rail Act, to purchase 2,700 miles of track from the Soo Line and remake it into a supposedly dynamic and efficient carrier. That efficiency came largely from operating non-union and thus eliminating work rules that had promoted safety.

Wisconsin Central — which also took advantage of privatization to acquire rail operations in countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand — racked up a questionable safety record. Burkhardt was forced out of Wisconsin Central in a boardroom dispute in 2001, but he continued his risky practices after his new company, Rail World, took over the Bangor and Aroostook line in 2003 and renamed it MMA.

Faced with operating losses, Burkhardt and his colleague Robert Grindrod targeted labor costs with little concern about the safety consequences. In 2010 the Bangor Daily News reported that MMA was planning to reduce its crews to one person in Maine, which, amazingly, was allowed by state officials. Grindrod blithely told the newspaper: “Obviously, if you are running two men on a crew and switch to one man, you’re saving 50 percent of your labor component.” The company also succeeded in getting permission for one-man crews in Canada.

Inadequate staffing may have also played a role in a 2009 incident at an MMA maintenance facility in Maine in which more than 100,000 gallons of oil were spilled during a transfer in the facility’s boiler room. In 2011 the EPA fined the company $30,000 for Clean Water Act violations.

MMA continued to have safety problems even before the Lac-Megantic disaster. The Wall Street Journal reported that MMA had 23 accidents, injuries or other reportable mishaps from 2010 to 2012 and that on a per-mile basis the company’s rate was much higher than the U.S. national average.

The Lac-Megantic accident is prompting calls in Canada for a reconsideration of the policy of allowing a high degree of self-regulation on the part of the railroads. A review of lax regulation, including the elimination of work rules, should also occur in the United States. There’s also a scandal in the fact that railroads like MMA are still allowed to use outdated and unsafe tanker cars.

Yet some observers are seeking to exploit the deaths in Quebec by making the bizarre argument that the real lesson of the accident is the need to rely more on pipelines rather than railroads to carry the crude oil gushing out of the North Dakota Bakken fields (the content of the MMA tankers) and the tar sands of Canada. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, for instance, is using the incident to argue the need for the controversial XL Pipeline.

How quickly these people forget that the safety record of pipelines is far from unblemished. Hoeven’s neighbors in Montana are still recovering from the 2011 rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline that spilled some 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

The problem is not the particular delivery system by which hazardous substances are transported but the fact that too many of those systems are under the control of executives such as Burkhardt who put their profits before the safety of the public.

Obamacare’s Dangerous Dependence on the Private Sector

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

After holding out as long as possible in the hope that Mitt Romney would be elected and the Affordable Care Act would be repealed, various red states are now being forced to decide whether they will set up the insurance exchanges mandated by the act or let the federal government do it for them. While this is a defeat for die-hard opponents of Obamacare, it is a windfall for a group of companies that regard the exchanges as a huge business opportunity.

Those companies are not just the private health insurance carriers, whose continued existence was guaranteed by Obamacare’s rejection of both single payer and the public option, and whose services will be hawked on the exchanges. It turns out that the creation of the exchanges, whether done under the auspices of a state or the feds, will involve private contractors.

Some of the states that have already opted to set up their own exchanges are doing so with the help of corporations that make a business out of government services. For example, California awarded a $359 million contract to consulting giant Accenture.  Xerox got a $72 million contract from Nevada, and Maximus was awarded $41 million by Minnesota.

Maximus is also reported to be among those companies competing for a federal contract that may be awarded to help the tardy states catch up. This would be in addition to several hundred million dollars in contracts already awarded by the Department of Health and Human Services to three contractors to help build the federal exchange.

While it is dismaying to see large amounts of taxpayer money going to the private sector for what is supposed to be a public service, it is even more dismaying to see which companies are at the front of the gravy train.

Take the case of Maximus, which was established in the 1970s but whose business really took off in the wake of the welfare “reform” of the 1990s. Among other things, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act opened the door to state government use of contractors to administer public assistance and other social programs. The annual revenues of Maximus soared from $88 million in 1995 to $487 million in 2001.

That was great for its executives and shareholders, but taxpayers and participants in the social programs the company helped administer were often less enthusiastic. Maximus ended up at the center of one controversy after another as its performance faltered and its promises of vast savings from contracting-out frequently failed to materialize.

For instance, after Maximus took over In Connecticut’s program of child-care benefits for poor families in 1996, the system soon fell into such as state of disarray that the New York Times published an article about the situation headlined IN CONNECTICUT, A PRIVATELY RUN WELFARE PROGRAM SINKS INTO CHAOS.

In Wisconsin, where former Gov. Tommy Thompson put Maximus in charge of the state’s welfare-to-work program, a legislative audit found that the company was using public money for unauthorized purposes such as staff parties. At the same time, Maximus was found to be doing a poor job in getting clients into full-time jobs.

Maximus has also been accused of filing false claims with the federal government for its state and local clients. In 2007 the company had to pay $30.5 million to resolve Medicaid fraud charges related to its contract with the District of Columbia.

In Texas, Maximus was embroiled in a scandal relating to work directly relevant to health insurance exchanges. In 2005 the Texas Access Alliance, an entity formed by Accenture and Maximus, received a whopping $899 million contract from the state to develop a social services enrollment system. It turned out to be a disaster. There was a high volume of glitches in the computer system and poor performance by the related call centers. The Alliance eventually lost the contract and was sued by the state. The case was settled under a deal in which the Alliance agreed to forgo $70.9 million in payments and Maximus agreed to pay $40 million in cash and provide a $10 million credit against future work.

The rollout of the Obamacare insurance exchanges is already operating on a tight deadline. It is difficult to believe that the situation will get better by putting companies such as Maximus and Accenture in the picture. Using these contractors may instead provide more evidence of the Affordable Care Act’s dangerous dependence on the private sector.

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Public-Private Power Grab

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

As unemployment rates remain stubbornly high around the country, the Republican winners of November’s gubernatorial races face a dilemma: How do they respond to the clamor for more job creation while holding true to their opposition to government activism. The answer, apparently, is to go with a gimmick.

In at least four states, the gimmick consists of proposing that the state agency responsible for business recruitment—and other functions such as awarding subsidies that come under the rubric of economic development—be handed over to the private sector. Governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa and Arizona are calling on legislators to approve the dismantling of commerce or development agencies and the transfer of their responsibilities—and their funding—to public-private partnerships (PPPs).

It turns out that economic development privatization is nothing new. My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have completed an analysis of the subject, which we’ve just published in a report titled Public-Private Power Grab.

We found that the idea is far from new but it is not a common or standard practice. Economic development PPPs date back more than 20 years, but only seven states currently allow private entities to control their business recruitment functions: Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Several other states previously employed PPPs but abandoned them because of performance problems.

Most of the seven states that currently make use of economic development PPPs have experienced a variety of performance problems. These include the following:

  • Misuse of taxpayer funds
  • Excessive executive bonuses
  • Questionable subsidy awards by the subset of PPPs that have a role in that process
  • Conflicts of interest in subsidy awards
  • Questionable claims by the PPP about its effectiveness
  • Resistance to accountability

Two of the features of the PPPs that promote corruption are that, in addition to public funding, they accept contributions from corporations and that their boards are often chosen by the governor will little or no legislative oversight. What this means is that the PPPs may end up favoring those contributors in making subsidy awards, and those awards are likely to go to the governor’s major corporate campaign donors.

Such sleazy practices have been seen most clearly in Texas, where the state’s Emerging Technology Fund is run by a public-private partnership controlled by Gov. Rick Perry and has a tendency to give its subsidy awards to Perry’s donors. According to an investigation by the Dallas Morning News, those donors have collected more than $16 million from the fund.

In 2006 the St. Petersburg Times published a 6,000-word investigation on Enterprise Florida, finding a pattern of conflicts of interest among the PPP’s board. In a follow-up editorial, the newspaper wrote that Enterprise Florida “has shown itself to be a public-private venture only in the sense that the public pays and the private receives. Despite critical audits, legislative questions and gubernatorial promises of reform, the group has proved to be virtually immune to the normal checks and balances.”

Aside from corruption, the PPPs tend to be characterized by incompetence or poor judgment. For example, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) found itself in hot water last year when it was revealed it had approved a $9 million subsidy to a company headed by a convicted embezzler and scam artist.

The Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which is often cited as a model by today’s privatization proponents, lost much of its luster last year after a TV station found that many of the jobs IEDC had taken credit for creating did not in fact exist. A former Indiana budget official recently told a reporter that “most of the numbers [IEDC] gave us were either not true or could not be substantiated,” adding that he considered IEDC “a political organization that really only served to make it seem like the governor was doing something about the economy.”

When challenged about their poor record, the chief executives of the PPPs tend to complain about the criticism rather than addressing their substance. In the wake of a series of scandals in 2010 about the MEDC’s handling of tax credit awards, the entity’s executive committee issued an open letter of complaint to the media and the legislature.  Rather than addressing MEDC’s shortcomings, the letter made the dubious claim that the controversy might prompt companies to shun the state. “Political in-fighting is a clear warning to business that a state lacks a cohesive climate for economic development,” the letter stated, “and a clear signal to invest elsewhere.”

Not surprisingly, our report concludes that economic development PPPs are a bad idea. Unfortunately, advocates of privatization in this area and others have a tendency to ignore evidence and persist in their misguided belief that the private sector can always do everything better.

Is the Recovery Act Stimulating Privatization?

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

AFSCMEKey portions of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, especially the state fiscal stabilization fund, are designed to prevent job loss among teachers and other state and local government employees. But what about the rest?

The assumption seems to be that most of the job creation and retention will take place in the private sector. Yet one question that has received little attention since ARRA was signed by President Obama in February is whether the spending will contribute to the process of privatization and contracting-out of functions previously performed by public sector workers.

On October 15 the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board released the first batch of recipient reporting data covering some $15 billion in direct federal contracts. Although this is a small portion of overall ARRA spending (information relating to the much larger realm of federal grants to states and others will be released on October 30), it begins to shed some light on the privatization question.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have been examining the universe of around 9,000 recipient reports summarized in a national spreadsheet available on the Recovery.gov website. Many of the entries are unremarkable. They involve contracts for functions such as manufacturing and construction that have traditionally been concentrated in the private sector. It is not surprising that the federal government gave an ARRA contract to Chrysler to supply vehicles and one to Clark Construction to build a new headquarters for the Coast Guard.

Yet many of the other entries appear to be part of the contracting-out phenomenon. You can tell this, first, by looking at the names of the contractors: one firm called Federal Contracting Inc. leaves little doubt as to its orientation. There are others that have a reputation for being involved in high-profile outsourcing deals. An example is IAP Worldwide Services, a politically connected firm (former Vice President Dan Quayle is on its board of directors) that got a controversial contract to take over management of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Or else you can look at the description of the projects. A company called 4W Solutions got a contract from NASA for “administrative activities, configuration management of documents, procurement-related analysis and support for report integration/administrative support for Cross-Agency Support construction contracts.”

To be a bit more systematic in our analysis, my colleagues and I decided to match the Recovery.gov list of contractors to the membership list of the Professional Services Council, the leading trade association for the federal outsourcing industry.

PSC’s members range from large and notorious contractors such as KBR (formerly the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root), Xe Services (formerly Blackwater) and CACI International (linked to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal) to small and obscure consulting firms. During its 27-year history, the association has sought to banish the use of the term “Beltway Bandit” to refer to federal contractors and has pushed for legislation that would maximize the amount of federal work that gets outsourced. It has also resisted the recent move toward insourcing.

We found that, of the 382 PSC members listed on the association’s website, about 50 are on the list of ARRA federal contract recipients (name variations make an exact count difficult). In all, these members and their affiliates have been awarded about 250 ARRA contracts with a total value of more than $800 million.

Some of these involve engineering and construction services, but others deal with functions that are more inherently governmental, such as a contract given to Deloitte Consulting to provide “program management oversight” for ARRA grants made by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In an economic crisis such as the current recession, all job creation is to be welcomed. But it would be a shame if some portion of Recovery Act money is being used in ways that do little more than shift work from the public sector to the private sector.

(Thanks to Tommy Cafcas, Caitlin Lacy and Leigh McIlvaine for their research help.)

Update: I should have mentioned that KBR and Xe Services are not among the recipients of ARRA contracts, but CACI has two.

Further update: We spent more time analyzing the spreadsheet and found many more ARRA contracts that can be attributed to PSC members through joint ventures, affiliates, etc.  Our tally is now about 470 contracts worth a total of about $3.5 billion. These include some huge contracts associated with clean-up projects at Department of Energy nuclear facilities.