Don’t loosen rules on selling state assets

GUEST OPINION

PSSTT . HEY, BUDDY. DO you want to buy a power plant? I also got a great deal on stadiums, dormitories, roads, prisons ... whatever you want. The price is right too.”

It’s unfathomable that Wisconsin would allow state properties to be sold like watches lining the inside of a bum’s trench coat, but that’s exactly what could happen unless the Legislature acts.

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee last week approved a proposal that would allow Gov. Scott Walker to sell a long list of state properties without competitive bids. Walker sought permission to sell the property independently, but the committee added restrictions that included approval of any sale and that state-owned property funded with at least 50 percent federal funds, gifts, or grants could not be sold.

Student unions and residence halls on campuses funded with student fees - not tax dollars - apparently still could be sold.

Democrats said the authority is too broad and said Walker could choose to sell the Capitol and Camp Randall stadium if he wanted, which was chided by committee co-chair Rep. Sen. Alberta Darling. “There’s not a chance this committee would sell the Capitol. Let’s get real,” Darling said. “Let’s please stick to reality.”

The Department of Administration said there are no plans to sell property that provides a public service such as a campus residence hall, state highway or a prison system. So what is the reality? With broad veto authority, the governor could delete any legislative oversight, although his spokesman said that wouldn’t happen.

“Gov. Walker has always supported a transparent and competitive process.” said spokesman Tom Evenson.

It hardly sounds like selling property without seeking bids is competitive. It also opens up a wide door to the possibility of selling property to repay political favors.

Before any property is sold, the state would be required to provide the estimated value of a property and perform a cost benefit analysis. But once that is done, apparently nothing would prevent the governor - with a rubber stamp approval from his party - from making quick deals in the dead of the night. It makes sense for the state to perform a financial inventory of its assets, which includes 33 state-owned heating and cooling plants like the one on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus. Those plants account for $313 million in debt that is part of $8 billion the state owes on capital construction projects. Some want the state to get out of owning power plants - of which many are old and require upgrading for both environmental and efficiency reasons.

While getting some money up front for the newer plants may be tempting, it shouldn’t be done if the sale costs us more down the road. We will all pay through the upgrades, whether through taxes or through utility rates.

Selling power plants to utilities who then charge ratepayers for the upgrades - and a profit margin - could leave the state over a barrel. These plants were specifically designed to operate large campuses or prison facilities.

Let’s put this process into perspective. Suppose the mayor of a city or a county executive was given the permission to sell off assets without bids and without council or board approval. Suppose then the executive decided to sell a dump truck to a campaign contributor or a relative. Is that really the authority we want to give the governor of Wisconsin?

Any sale process should include bids, more legislative oversight and full transparency. - LaCrosse Tribune, May 26

At issue:
Selling state properties
Bottom line:
Strong oversight needed


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