Gibson: LANL Contract Change Merits Attention More Than Worry

Los Alamos

Here we go again. Another change in the LANL management contract is coming in two to three years. What can we expect? What can we do about it?

Few would claim that the Lab has been more productive under LANS than its pre-2006 predecessor, UC. How fault should be apportioned among this particular management team, the for-profit business model, or DOE’s bureaucratic oversight is debatable. The first will change, the second may or may not. The third won’t.

In any case, the sun will keep rising. Virtually all employees, with the exception of some senior managers, will keep their jobs and their paychecks. Benefits already earned should be protected.

There are clouds. Employee benefits going forward will warrant close watching. The direct issue for retirees is whether the Lab will continue to pay the largest portion of health insurance premiums as it always has but is not bound to.

During the last contract transition a decade ago, the people of Los Alamos were strongly supported by our two U.S. senators. They both supported the Lab and its people (which are the Lab, after all) and had the seniority and political clout to positively influence the contracting on our behalf. That is less true today.

In spite of the continuity that can be expected, uncertainty itself will affect people during this transition period. Stress will rise, with its attendant emotional, mental, and physical effects on individuals and those around them.

People will tend to conserve their resources. Local retail businesses, collectively always struggling, will likely experience yet another pinch.

The one potentially large collateral effect of the contract change would be to our county government. Well over half its general fund revenues come from LANS. While not real likely, the next LANL contractor could be a non-profit entity, like UC was. If so, county government revenues would fall dramatically. Of course, county government functioned quite effectively for many years before 2006 on much less money. Transition back to more modest spending levels, if it becomes necessary, would not be easy or pretty. It would require our elected leaders to make the kinds of hard choices they hate.

The state government would also see a revenue drop if the next contractor is non-profit. Its loss would be of order one percent of the state budget. That is noticeable, but not dramatic.

While most decisions will be made behind closed doors in Washington, we are not helpless.

When the dust settles, the Lab will still be here. It and its people will still have work to do. For most of the community, the uncertainty during the next couple years will be the biggest problem. We need to take care of ourselves. We need to watch the contract negotiations closely, as we did last time. We need to continue to support our local businesses.

We also need to watch our county and state governments to make sure they represent our best interests in this transition, which may well include a return to a non-profit contractor, even if it means leaner times for them.

Once again, we are reminded of our fundamental need for true economic and intellectual base diversification to reduce our singular dependence on LANL. It would strengthen the community and buffer inevitable future changes at the Lab.