In a two-page letter to the University of Tennessee's president, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers offered sharp criticism for Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to outsource some work on college campuses.
The letter, sent to UT system president Joe DiPietro on Friday, said "serious concerns and questions" remain about "state-wide outsourcing as a good business practice." The embattled plan has faced a steady stream of opposition since it came to light more than a year ago.
Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, said his office alerted lawmakers that he planned to send the letter and asked anyone interested in adding their names to get back to him. Sixteen Republicans and three Democrats in the House and Senate agreed.
With the exception of Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, all of the signatures came from lawmakers representing East Tennessee.
Briggs said he did not want the letter to be viewed as critical of Haslam. Instead, he said, he was mainly concerned about protecting his constituents who work at UT.
“I want to make this absolutely clear, this is not a confrontation to the governor,” Briggs said, adding that he supports Haslam on 90 percent of what he does. “I wanted Dr. DiPietro to know that the general assembly is watching this entire outsourcing process (and) we do have concerns.”
Michelle R. Martin, the spokeswoman for the state office overseeing the outsourcing proposal, said in an email that the Haslam administration would "stand behind" the proposal. The state has put out a call for potential bidders and will review the costs and will consider awarding a contract in February.
"We believe the opportunities to help the state increase service at a lower cost to taxpayers are quite compelling, and stand behind the work that has been done in cooperation with university system representatives and others up to this point," Martin said.
A spokeswoman for the UT system said DiPietro had already left the office Friday when the letter became public.
The state uses Chicago-based JLL to manage roughly 10 percent of its facilities. For more than a year, Haslam's administration has pursued a proposal to expand that outsourcing to include facilities management at college campuses, state parks and prisons.
Administration officials have said expanding outsourcing could save the state about $35 million per year. College leaders, including DiPietro, have questioned the state's projections in the past, saying they already work to keep costs down.
In the letter, the bipartisan group of lawmakers suggested privatizing facilities management could create costly problems for the state in the long run.
"Accurate estimates are difficult to make to the the costs of maintenance services when a major university has non-recurring events such as athletic events," the letter said. "With privatization, the university loses the flexibility to move the right personnel to the right place at the right time."
Advocates for college workers have repeatedly criticized the plan, predicting it would lead to slashed pay, reduced benefits or cut jobs for current state employees. The Haslam administration has repeatedly denied the charge, saying tens of millions of dollars could be saved annually without losing jobs, pay or benefits.
In Friday's letter, the lawmakers indicated they shared workers' concerns.
"No longer will employees share the same goals and loyalty of their employer, the University of Tennessee," the letter read. "Jobs and benefits will be at the whim of an out-of-state company which leads to an unnecessary psychological insecurity for employees and their families."
In her statement, Martin said the plan included "strict language to protect employment for current state facility management employees, including maintaining total equitable compensation and prohibiting any potential provider from enacting a reduction in force at any time during the length of the contract."
Haslam has said colleges and other state agencies will have the ability to opt in or out of outsourcing this year. Friday's letter could give DiPietro political cover if he opts out on behalf of the UT system.
"We are certain you will take all of the above mentioned points into consideration when you announce your decision," the end of the letter read. "We especially want you to know that many members of the General Assembly will stand by you and support your final decision."