Competitive bidding is not really optional, especially on the sale of power plants

What on Earth has gotten into state officials with regard to competitive bidding?

First, Jim Doyle selects a Spanish train manufacturer without the benefit of competitive bidding, and now, far worse, Scott Walker apparently thinks it's a swell idea to sell off state-owned heating, cooling, and power plants and privatize them without a bidding process.

The first example was aggravating, especially since there are Wisconsin companies that might have been interested in the train work, but the latest example, tucked into a budget repair bill where most of the attention is focused elsewhere, will require some real explaining. The official language in the bill is "with or without" the solicitation of bids, but that certainly leaves open the door to foolishness.

For this and reasons I've explained in recent blogs, I'm glad the budget repair bill is unlikely to pass in its present form in both houses of the Legislature. (The Assembly passed it early Friday morning; it has no chance in a Senate absent a quorum.) Imagine, no competitive bidding to evaluate whether the bidders can run power plants cost effectively, let alone safely.

One of our readers likened it to selling off the furnace in your house. Once it is sold, you have little or no control over heating costs.

I'm not flatly opposed to privatization, but some of Walker's critics have been following the money and what they've uncovered cannot be dismissed. The Governor received a crank call the other day purportedly from a campaign donor, David Koch, executive VP of Koch Industries, but actually from a Buffalo blogger. There is little evidence to suggest that Koch is angling to buy, or has the capability of operating, one or more power plants, but the call put Walker on the defensive and also revealed a bit of vanity on Walker's part with regard to this budget situation and President Reagan's 1981 firing of air traffic controllers.

So is this really what the chaos is all about – showing that you can be as tough as Reagan? Thousands of jobs are on the line here and elsewhere. Businesses here and elsewhere are worried that some of their most loyal customers will lose their jobs and purchasing power. Yet our Governor, with a clear compromise evident to everyone – benefit concessions in exchange for no changes in collective bargaining – is flattering himself with comparisons to a conservative icon.

I'm sorry, but I've never been so profoundly disappointed in a politician. I have supported many of Walker's pro-growth policies because stimulating the economy and creating more business activity and tax revenue is as important for balancing the budget as spending discipline. I am not, however, the Governor's drum beater, and when I think he's wrong, I will say so. On the subject of curtailing collective bargaining for state employees, he's dead wrong, especially when they have signaled their willingness to make the benefit concessions he's called for.

We don't need to remove collective bargaining to give local governments the "tools" they need. They need to have the backbone to hold firm, especially in this economic environment, to say no to things like Viagra coverage as part of employee health care coverage. That timidity costs Milwaukee Public Schools almost $800,000 a year in an era when educational achievement in that district is substandard. You can't tell me the local school board would not win that argument by taking its case to the public, especially during a recession in which taxpayers have reached the boiling point.

Walker has promised to create 250,000 jobs over the next four years. For a guy who has tried to position himself as a job creator, sending out layoff notices to state employees (if the budget repair bill does not pass) would be quite a betrayal. I have to think he assumes that Democrats and the state employee unions will take the blame for layoffs, but there will be plenty of blame to go around.

Before I close, I have one more observation about competitive bidding on power plants. Comparatively lower energy costs have been one of the few competitive advantages to doing business in Wisconsin. Anyone who's been to the gas pump recently knows there are enough developments in the Middle East that already are threatening to blow fuel costs through the roof; we don't need to risk higher electric rates on top of that. The state should either continue to run the plants or engage in a rigorous competitive bidding process, where it could still walk away if the bids don't measure up.

It's one more reason to kill the bill.

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.