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Tennessee governor seeks to rely more on private consultants

In this March 4, 2019 file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State Address in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee’s first-term Republican governor is thinking about using private consultants to help implement his political agenda despite boasting about hiring staffers for their ability to do just that. And consulting firms are lining up in hopes of snagging big, taxpayer-funded contracts. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Consulting firms are lining up in hopes of snagging big, taxpayer-funded contracts, as Tennessee’s first-term Republican governor considers using the private sector instead of government experts to tackle issues like health care and the opioid crisis.

Gov. Bill Lee’s request for proposals reflects his faith that the private sector is better equipped to address the state’s biggest challenges as he settles into the early stages of his first term in an elected office.

Lee, a former businessman, quietly released the call for consultants in May, shortly after the conclusion of this year’s legislative session. Now he’s reviewing applications from dozens of companies seeking to be hired to help him implement his political agenda. The administration has received 35 responses from consultants across the state since Lee first pitched the idea.

“We are always looking for ways that we can improve the efficiencies of government so that we can wisely spend taxpayer money,” Lee recently told The Associated Press.

Using the private sector to do government jobs has been a popular theme among Republican elected officials in recent years.

The preliminary paperwork suggested Lee’s office is seeking one or multiple consultant groups to work on a range of topics that the Republican campaigned on in the buildup to the November election. Those include finding ways to “provide affordable healthcare to the uninsured population,” and increase access to rural health care.

The documents also urged consultants to submit proposals on how they would “combat the opioid crisis,” address criminal justice reform, assist in economic development in rural counties and conduct a feasibility study of implementing “zero-based budgeting” for state departments.

Key details surrounding the proposed move remain largely unknown, such as how much it would cost, how much private consultants would be involved in the state’s top policy decisions and how long consultants would be involved.

While it’s not unusual for government officials to hire private consultants for particular projects, it’s rare for consultants to broadly map out key items of a governor’s agenda.

Consultants are often touted as having the “real world” experience to come up with cost-saving solutions in specialized fields. Georgia, for example, recently selected a consulting firm to develop a Medicaid waiver to address health care costs and accessibility. The firms considered all had experience working on Medicaid waivers in other states.

But some critics say relying too much on consultants carries the risk of poor oversight and possible financial mismanagement. In California, a 2018 audit of a project to develop an as-yet unbuilt high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco found that it had a convoluted management system. Auditors recommended the state hire more full-time, experienced state employees instead of relying on the numerous outside consultants who the auditors said might not have the “best interests of the state as their primary motivation.”

“The cautionary part of this is that if (using consultants) becomes overly broad and a revenue stream for political friends, then that’s a problem,” said Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University. “But you could argue that if it is well managed and you get the expertise, it is a conservative way to do it.”

Syler said Lee’s office would have to hold the consultants accountable and provide adequate oversight to ensure taxpayer money isn’t wasted.

“I don’t think it’s wise to go outside of your political staff for the majority of your advice,” he said. “This is not a replacement for a strong team around you, but it can be a complement to them.”

When he was transitioning into public office, Lee had boasted about hiring staffers for their ability to implement his policies. In a December press release, Lee noted that his legislative personnel would do a “tremendous job representing my administration.”

Lee’s idea is still in its infancy. He has cautioned that he must be convinced that it will result in savings for the state.

“We’ll review those consultant proposals, but we haven’t made any decisions or reviewed those as of yet,” Lee said.

His call for consultants followed his bumpy victory in passing an education bill that creates state-funded education savings accounts for some families to use to cover the cost of private tuition and other expenses. Despite working with a Legislature dominated by his own party, Lee’s team struggled for weeks to secure enough support for the bill.

The newly enacted law includes a provision allowing the Department of Education to hire an outside consultant firm to manage the fees of the education savings account program.

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