The current rush toward privatization of government services requires a reality check, says a former journalist now with a Milwaukee-area research organization.

The gains touted don’t always materialize and might do more harm than good for local communities, said Jack Norman, director of policy research and development for the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future. Before joining IWF in 2000, he was a business and local news reporter for the Milwaukee Journal and then the Journal-Sentinel.

The state’s move toward more privatization is not new — the Department of  Health Services went from paying private vendors $66.2 million in 2006-07 to $114.8 million in 2010-11, he said. But it picked up in 2011 under Gov. Scott Walker, a “big fan” of privatization while Milwaukee County executive, Norman said.

The governor’s administration has been “very proud” of the number of public employees shed in his first year, Norman said.

Moves have ranged from outsourcing or contracting with private business to expanding the school voucher system in Milwaukee and to Racine.

Advocates claim private companies can cut costs, increase efficiency and allows for more choices with less bureaucracy.

But the public and governments should examine all facets of what might be gained and lost by privatizing, Norman told about 50 people Monday at a session sponsored by the local League of Women Voters.

The promised savings might be offset by a reduced level of service, he said, or a loss of income in the community as government workers are replaced by lower-paid employees who spend less locally — or live elsewhere.

Some privatization decisions seem aimed at payback rather than taxpayer relief, he said. Legislation last year that bars counties from sharing on road maintenance work — thus requiring they hire private road crews — even drew criticism from the Heartland Institute, which Norman described as a conservative think tank.

A bill has been introduced to repeal that ban.

Private entities also are not bound by open records requirements to disclose budgets, salaries or results of outside oversight, such as quality testing or financial audits, he warned.

The area League of Women Voters hosted Norman as it begins a local privatization study that mirrors a similar national league effort.

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