Notes on the Atrocities Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...
Thursday, May 06, 2004
Here's my weekly American Street post...
Last week my wife, who is a consultant, started doing some work at the Oregon Historical Society, the official keeper of state history. It's a nicely-run state bureaucracy, with a museum, library, quarterly journal, and one of the country's most extensive collections of historical documents--except that it's not a state bureaucracy anymore. In a recent budget crisis, it lost its funding and now functions as a private organization. Odd, isn't it? The State of Oregon is no longer the keeper of its own history.
Another example: I work for Portland State University, a public school beholden to state guidelines and requirements. Due to a complex legislative ruling, it was barred from offering any graduate programs that either the University of Oregon or Oregon State offered--a legacy that has crippled Portland's effort to educate its citizens. Yet only 16% of the school's funds come from the state.
One more. As Oregonians will quickly tell you, it's pledge week at Oregon Public Broadcasting, our local NPR affiliate. Over the past couple of years, as the state went through a massive budget crunch, OPB started losing state support. Last year it lost all state funding. It's now the only NPR affiliate in the nation that's not really "public"--it's a private nonprofit.
Increasingly, the starve-the-beasters are winning. Massive changes to the way we govern are well underway as funds-strapped states farm out departments and programs to private nonprofits. Is this good? Dangerous? Short-sighted? Those are exactly the questions the public should be asking, but it's not part of the discussion. We're inadvertently privatizing government.
Private institutions can be good. If they're well-run, they can raise more money than a state agency and function more smoothly and effectively. This is essentially the argument Bush made when he proposed funding "faith-based" nonprofits to deliver social services--they're smaller, more wieldy, local, responsive and they're already doing that work. Why no fund them instead of the Department of Health and Human Services?
But it's also a dangerous practice. Once a service is farmed out, the government loses oversight. Local nonprofits are not subject to the same level of regulation and laws, meaning we as citizens lose control. If the Oregon Historical Society decides to auction off some of its collection to raise money for a new museum, the state is powerless to stop it.
And it's short-sighted. In order to make budgetary goals, privatizing parts of government seems like an easy fix. But in cases where the services are critical--social work, mental health, health care--the costs aren't necessarily transferred. Whether it has direct oversight of those functions or not, the state ultimately has responsibility. After Oregon's round of service-cutting, it found itself at the center of dozens (hundreds?) of lawsuits.
The main issue isn't whether this process is a good one or not, but rather, that its happening without any public discussion. Do you know which agencies in your state have been cut and privatized? Would you have preferred to pay more taxes to preserve those agencies, or chosen different ones? If we don't demand to be included in those discussions, we're going to slowly find out, as in the case of the Oregon Historical Society, that the decisions have already been made.