Panel suggests steps to make Ariz. more efficient

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PHOENIX (AP) -- A commission Tuesday recommended initial steps that it says will make Arizona's state government more efficient, including the adoption of a long-term plan to privatize more government functions.

Gov. Jan Brewer should direct agencies that that government has a standard policy for "prudent privatization," the Commission on Privatization and Efficiency said in its initial report. That would include finding ways to improve services and cut costs by having the private sector handle some duties now performed by government employees.

Citing a Florida privatization push as a model, the Arizona commission recommended that the state establish a "center of excellence" to coach agencies on privatization opportunities.

Similar privatization and efficiency efforts are under way in other states, including Utah and Virginia, the report noted.

Brewer, a Republican, appointed the 11-member commission last spring. Members include appointed agency directors, two top Republican legislative leaders and an advocate of privatization. No Democratic lawmakers or public employee union officials serve on the commission.

Millions of dollars "can be saved without sacrificing the quality of service to the people of Arizona," which is particularly important at a time when state continues to have budget troubles, the commission said in a news release.

The report's notes that the state already uses numerous private companies for services, including operating state prisons that house thousands of inmates. But the report does not mention recent controversy over a privately operated prison near Kingman where three violent offenders escaped July 30. State prison officials have acknowledged failures in oversight.

The Kingman escape demonstrates that the state must be cautious in what privatization changes it makes, particularly in important public services such as corrections and education, said state Rep. Chad Campbell, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Committee. "They are too important to be handed over with no accountability," he said.

The committee's initial recommendations include pursuing ways to use private companies to operate education data systems and all or parts of some state parks. Rest areas also could be privatized if federal laws are changed as the state has urged Congress to do, the report noted.

Other cost-saving recommendations include pooling minutes from cell phone contracts, programming computers to shut down automatically after set periods of inactivity, and having agencies use one centrally maintained e-mail system.

Others include streamlining credential-checks of health care providers and making it easier for agencies to exchange and share surplus equipment, including software licenses, and having more agencies use automated systems for processes like responding to requests for verification of state workers' employment.

With office closures and other cutbacks, some state offices are underused and the Department of Administration "has no shortage of surplus property to redistribute, sell, recycle or dispose of," the report said.

A spokeswoman for a union whose members include state employees said the report didn't appear to be a sincere effort by Brewer to improve state government's efficiency and quality of services.

"It looks like a poll-tested response six weeks before the election," said Lisa McAllister of the Service Employees International Union, referring to the report's release before the Nov. 2 general election.

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman denied that, saying there had been no polling on the subject and that Brewer has long supported efforts to root out waste and make government more efficient.

Senseman said the administration will consider the recomendations. He said some can be implemented administratively, but others would require legislative approval.

The initial recommendations were suggested for implementation in the current fiscal year. The commission is also supposed to make long-term recommendations. That report is due Dec. 31.

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