Once in awhile, the California Legislature, seemingly unaware of it, gives us fair warning that something mischievousdevious?may be afoot.
This, for example, is presently the case with Senate Bill 160, which would limit the ability of the University of California to contract for services with outside providers such as food service companies and custodial service companies.
On April 28, the Senate Appropriations Committee put SB 160 in its "Suspense File," where it will remain presumably until it is brought back to the committee for a vote sometime early in the summer, and then continue through the rest of the legislative process. This is routinely done with bills that carry a price tag over $150,000, so it is fitting that SB 160, which UC estimates would initially cost between $30 million and $40 million, is "suspensed."
That term usefully warns us that while the bill is out of sight, we need to wonder about what is going on.
What is particularly curious about SB 160 is that it exactly reproduces SB 2006 from last year, which was vetoed by the governor. As written, the bill requires that in new facilities, UC be allowed to contract outside for a service already "performed by university employees who are represented in bargaining units" only if the university can show "good cause."
Under "good cause," the bill lists a number of alternatives. Not included among them, however, is expense. Apparently, the one thing the university cannot argue is that contracting would save precious dollars that could be used in the classroom. The budget problems besetting the state and especially the educational system notwithstanding, the university is not supposed to consider what the work costs, but only who will do it.
This may explain the makeup of the constituencies for and against the bill.
Perhaps because the bill is still below the radar screen, the only opponents listed are the University of California and the California Land Contractors Association, a groundskeepers' group. The bill's supporters are powerful labor unions, including, most significantly, the state employees union (AFSCME).
It ought not to be surprising, then, that SB 160's defenders argue that workers in the private sector do not have the protections and benefits of unionized university employees. The bill thus combines limits on the university with an implied condemnation of the private sector.
At this point, our "suspense" kicks in. The question is why this bill has been reintroduced in the same form as last year. When the governor vetoed it, he also basically called for its reintroduction by requesting that UC and his administration consult and come up with more workable legislation. At this point, suspense turns to worry.
What the governor considers "workable" is a mystery, especially given the jockeying over the budget going on in Sacramento. Are there negotiations, one wonders, proceeding outside the public eye that may lead to amending the bill in a way that makes it veto-proof but will force the university to contract outside and incur expenses that the governor and Legislature will not have to account for? Is the bill being used by the legislative majority and the administration to intimidate the university so that it accedes to union demands and severely reduces, at great cost, its outside contracting? There are rumors at UC that this is what is going on.
How far will the UC administration compromise itself on the issue of outside contracting for the sake of some other payoff? Are the bill's labor supporters, to whom the governor and his party are beholden, utilizing the "suspense" period to impose their interests more forcefully than was earlier the case?
In general, I suppose, one might simply ask whether the interests of the unions are going to trump the interests of education.
Keep your eyes open, then. The "suspense" period will end soon enough.