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New commission needs to be careful
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JUNE 22, 2003 - - WorldCom. Tyco. Global Crossing. Enron.

The mere mention of the names of these four companies certainly doesn't inspire confidence that the private sector is always right and can do things better.

But if you listen to a lot of politicians around South Carolina and the nation talk about government, you'll hear the continuing theme that government needs to be run more like a business.

Listen to what Gov. Mark Sanford said a couple of weeks ago when he appointed a special commission to focus on improving management, accountability and performance in state government:

"This commission is all about breaking down the current structure, checking out the moving parts and coming up with a plan for putting the engine back together so it runs smoother and more efficiently. Beyond asking 'how does this work,' I'm particularly interested in this commission asking 'why does it work that way' and ultimately, is there a better way of getting the job done.'"

The rhetoric sounds good. Who, for example, could be against getting rid of waste, saving money, making government more accountable and improving efficiencies?

But if you go beyond the rhetoric and take the purpose of the new Governor's Commission on Management, Accountability and Performance to its logical extension, you can envision the real possibility the commission could make recommendations to encourage more privatization of government roles and, perhaps, some elimination of government roles.

It's a dangerous, slippery slope upon which commissioners will be treading.

Why? Because, quite frankly, government is not a business. There are some functions that you might not want the private sector doing. There are some things that government does that are, by their very nature, inefficient but necessary.

For example, most people would prefer that governments run police and security functions, not private security firms. Most would prefer that government do the job of housing prisoners, fighting fires, picking up trash and building roads. There's also a public service function in government that requires it to educate youths, protect the state's natural treasures, keep the waters and air clean, and ensure disease doesn't spread.

Certainly, it would be more efficient for a hospital emergency room to be open only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But people can't choose when they're going to need emergency treatment and lots need it outside "normal business hours."

In short, the state has serious obligations that require it do provide certain functions. State government doesn't develop lists of things it is going to do out of the blue. It exists to do the will of the Legislature, which has over the years enumerated agency responsibilities and outlined its priorities.

To the governor's credit, it appears at this early stage that the commission is focusing on finding efficiencies and ways to avoid duplication. As spokesman Chris Drummond explained, the commission is going to look at things like why the state's three major universities and an Aeronautics Commission all have aircraft. Might it not be more efficient to have one central state agency that deals with airplanes needed for official business?

One would hope the commission won't find much waste after three years of devastating budget cuts that slashed most state agencies by 20 percent.

Still, it's wise to look at ways to save money and become more efficient. But the new commission should be cautious in making recommendations that go too far and seek to get rid of government. That may not be in the public interest.

Just because something may not look perfect on paper doesn't mean there's not a public need for a function. The private sector doesn't always do things better. Just remember Enron and company.


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