The looming midterm elections have been welcomed with a collective shrug from the public. Interest has waned amid the buildup of TV ads and mailers. Voters seem to be expressing a general distaste for politics, not the ideal conditions for engagement and turnout.
Regardless of how many people care, some winners on election night will be rewarded with enormous power to shape the future of the country. Maybe not in Congress, where gridlock is all but assured, for the next couple years at least. But in 36 states the governor’s office is up for grabs, which means a potential change in executive administration in the majority of the nation. A handful of important states, including Illinois, Florida, Michigan, Georgia, and Wisconsin, have closely contested races for governor, and partisan control may shift in Maine, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Kansas.
As Matthew Yglesias points out, state governments play the main role in funding public education at the K-12 and public college and university levels. They both regulate health care and help fund it through state/federal Medicaid and children’s health insurance hybrids, and in some cases the Obamacare insurance exchanges. They manage the prisons where most of the nation’s inmates are housed. They control most of the provisions of services that people actually see in their daily lives.
Who runs the executive branch in the states matters even independent of control of the state legislatures. Regardless of what party runs the lawmaking apparatus, governors still wield plenty of power through administrative action to implement their vision for the government.
To that point, a new report put together by the Center for Media and Democracy shows how Republican governors in hotly contested states have been instrumental in the growing trend of privatizing public services. In a number of cases, they accomplished the outsourcing of government through executive orders or administrative agency actions, without clearance from their legislatures. And the privatization actions, while often rewarding cronies, have had negative consequences for the public.
Take Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder’s Department of Corrections announced last May that it would bring in private corporation Aramark to take over state prison food services. The department had previously rejected outsourcing the prison food business because officials found it would not save the state money. But Aramark spent $579,000 in lobbying in Michigan since 2007, and it paid off with the plum contract.
Since taking over prison food services last December, Aramark has served food containing maggots, had to ban workers who had sex with inmates and smuggled illegal goods into the prisons, and discovered that another employee asked an inmate to help him with a murder-for-hire plot. The state fined Aramark $98,000 for non-compliance in March, just three months after private company took over, but Snyder’s prison director eventually waived the fine, according to the CMD report.
In another case, Florida Governor Rick Scott, last seen getting petulant about fan placement at a debate, expanded a pilot program to privatize the state’s Medicaid system, despite multiple studies showing that the pilot deprived enrollees of essential care. Privatization will benefit three insurance companies who spent $2.54 million in lobbying since 2009. Scott also privatized the prison health care system, which led to a spike in inmate deaths. And in 2011, Scott signed an executive order mandating drug testing for state employees, which benefited Solantic, a drug-testing clinic that he co-founded. Scott eventually sold his majority share of the company amid public outcry.
In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback’s Department of Children and Families outsourced all child support services last March. The main contract went to YoungWilliams, whose CEO donated to Brownback and whose chief lobbyists met with Brownback’s chief of staff. Brownback later appointed a YoungWilliams executive to run child support enforcement.
Governor Scott Walker chairs the board of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, an agency privatized during his tenure. Like other outsourced economic development agencies, CMD charges that Wisconsin’s has become a slush fund to reward business cronies with taxpayer money. The Department of Housing and Urban Development accused the agency of misappropriating $10 million in funds, and several other job-creation grants went to ineligible recipients, companies that laid off workers, and firms that sent jobs out of the United States.
The CMD report recounts a litany of these activities, including the privatization of schools, health care, water systems, foster care management, road services and state liquor sales. Pennsylvania even outsourced its state Office of General Counsel, which provides legal advice to Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s administration, largely to campaign contributors.
In most of these cases, the governor had the singular authority to outsource public functions to private interests. Governors do not merely encourage passage of or veto legislation. They gain control of a vast executive branch with the ability to make countless unilateral decisions for their states. And the CMD case studies show a trend toward rewarding private contractors without public benefit, and in some instances actual harm.
All of the above governors face difficult re-election campaigns. Scott Walker is basically tied with Mary Burke. The same goes for Rick Snyder and his opponent, Mark Schauer; Rick Scott and his rival, Charlie Crist; and Sam Brownback and Paul Davis. Tom Corbett is extremely likely to lose to Democrat Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania.
We don’t know exactly how these Democratic opponents would handle state administrative agencies. But we know their counterparts have used them to further conservative theories of limited government and more efficient private-sector alternatives. The case studies in the CMD report show that these theories have only really succeeded as business opportunities for corporations, not for the public and not even for state budgetary bottom lines.
Conservative governance is on the ballot in these states, as Republicans pouring money into the races fully understand. If bold strokes like the privatization of public resources get rewarded in the voting booth, these governors would be justified in saying their policies reflected the public will.
That would have implications for the country well beyond the next election cycle. These midterm elections are another chapter in the endless battle over the role of government. So while stakes next month may appear to be low, they actually couldn’t be higher.
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