Privatizing Depots Ignites Fight

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, Tuesday shelved plans to bring up a controversial base closure-related issue as part of the debate on the pending FY97 supplemental appropriations bill, but intends to press his case this morning during a meeting with Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, according to a Bennett spokeswoman.

And, following his meeting with Widnall, Bennett plans to raise the issue, which involves the future of Air Force maintenance facilities in California and Texas, when Gen. Henry Viccellio, head of the Air Force Materiel Command, testifies today before the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

At an Appropriations Committee session last week, Bennett decried the Air Force's operation of five maintenance facilities at 50 percent capacity, while calling for the closure of two of the depots and consolidation of the work at the remaining three, LEGI-SLATE News Service reported.

He also urged the Air Force "not to discuss privatizing or competition until you address the issue of overcapacity."

The issue already has prompted Bennett to put a hold on the nomination of Gen. George Babbitt to take over the Air Force Materiel Command.

The controversy, which is fraught with regional politics, dates back to the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which recommended that Air Force maintenance facilities in Sacramento, Calif., and San Antonio, Texas, be closed down.

The depot facility at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento employs 8,000 people, while the facility at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio 12,850.

The base closing panel recommended that the work of these facilities should either be transferred to other depots, including one in Utah, or contracted out to private firms.

With the 1996 election looming, the Clinton administration emphasized the need to "privatize-in-place" at the two bases in electoral vote-rich California and Texas.

That position called for transfer of the workload to the private sector, but keeping the jobs in the local community. The administration plan, however, has angered legislators representing the Air Force's three other depots in Ogden, Utah, Oklahoma City and Warner Robins, Ga., which stand to gain from a workload transfer.

The GAO also has expressed concerns with the administration's concept. Privatization-in-place would "privatize rather than eliminate excess capacity and could be about $182 million per year more expensive than redistributing that workload to other underutilized Air Force depots," the GAO found in a recent inquiry.

At a hearing last week, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., accused the administration of circumventing the base closure process for political gain.

Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, said he "wondered how those states and communities that lost bases feel about the politically-inspired exceptions that are being made in these two cases where the privatization- in-place plans are being pushed forward."

At the hearing held by Inhofe, Deputy Defense Secretary John White backed away from the privatization-in-place plan and emphasized the Pentagon's efforts to competitively bid the work to private and public operators, not necessarily located in Texas or California, according to LEGI-SLATE News Service.

"It is important to stress that our closure strategy for San Antonio and Sacramento is not built upon, and in no way, mandates, `privatization in place,'" White testified. "Rather our strategy is built upon full and open public versus private competition."

Through privatization and closure of bases and facilities, the Pentagon is hoping to bankroll weapons modernization and other defense needs in an era of tightening budgets, White said.

The Pentagon's focus on privatization, however, would run counter to the legislative language that Bennett is considering.

His projected amendment would "require the Pentagon to consolidate work at the remaining depots before it holds competition" for the work, according to a Bennett spokeswoman.

In deciding not to try to attach the amendment to the supplemental appropriations measure, Bennett cited his meeting today with Widnall.

"Out of courtesy to the secretary, he opted not to move forward until after their meeting," the spokeswoman told CongressDaily Tuesday, adding that Bennett may seek another legislative vehicle for his amendment.

If he proposes the amendment, Bennett would have support from Inhofe and the senior senator from Utah, Judiciary Chairman Hatch, aides said.

At the Readiness Subcommittee hearing last week, Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., also expressed concern that if work is not passed on to the three depots in Utah, Georgia, and Oklahoma, then these sites may be considered in future base closing decisions.

Lining up against the amendment would be a similar bipartisan coalition of senators from the affected states.

Aides to Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both D-Calif., said they would be expected to oppose such an initiative.

"We want to maintain as many jobs in California as we can," said a Feinstein spokeswoman.

Hutchison was active last year in an unsuccessful attempt to repeal a law that mandates that no more than 40 percent of depot maintenance funds go to the private sector.

Without relief from this provision, not all of the activities at McClellan and Kelly can be privatized, according to the GAO.

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