State senators oppose private highway maintenance

Tuesday, May 7th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Senate went on record Monday as opposed to turning regular highway maintenance, including snow and ice removal, over to private contractors.

The Senate adopted Senate Concurrent Resolution 73 after Sen. Keith Leftwich, author of the resolution, pointed to complaints over maintenance work performed in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa areas by a private contractor.

Virginia Maintenance Services recently got out of its state contract after a series of disputes with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

The company drew criticism for its snow and ice removal efforts and other work last year in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The dispute prompted the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to withhold payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Virginia-based company.

Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, said the VMS arrangement proved that turning government functions over to private industry is not always the best thing to do.

He said that unlike state workers, VMS was not on the job during holidays such as Christmas.

That comment drew a rebuttal from Sen. James Williamson, R-Tulsa, who said it was ``patently false'' to suggest that public workers are on the job on holidays and private employees are not.

Sen. Gene Stipe, D-McAlester, defended state employees, saying they often worked on Christmas and other holidays.

Stipe said contract workers do not want to work on holidays because they are making the minimum wage. Contractors are ``out to make a profit'' and the public's interest is secondary, he said.

Leftwich said Republican Gov. Frank Keating thinks turning government functions over to private entities is a cure-all. ``I'm here to tell you it is not,'' he said.

He was critical of ODOT for selling or transferring highway equipment when VMS got the contract. He also said ODOT has ignored legislative opposition to private maintenance contracts and is inviting bids on work in several areas.

In other action, the Senate adopted a resolution by Sen. Brooks Douglas, R-Oklahoma City, that authorizes the Oklahoma Tax Commission to enter into an abatement program with delinquent taxpayers. The proposal must be approved by a vote of the people.

Senators voted 41-0 for a $4.3 million appropriation to the State Arts Council. Some Republicans who voted for the bill were critical of passing it before acting on the budgets for public schools, colleges and universities and vo-tech schools.

``If we're going to say education's first, then let's fund it first,'' said Sen. Jim Dunlap, R-Bartlesville, minority leader.