Californians don’t trust state government. A recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California reveals that only 6 percent of voters believe that government does not waste much money. You read correctly – only 6 percent have confidence that tax revenue is being spent wisely.
Of course the entrenched political class based inSacramento would have you believe that state government always operates with integrity — even though currently three state Senators are on leave because of criminal conduct ranging from perjury to taking bribes and gun running – and makes efficient use of every taxpayer dollar. The problem, they say, is not the conduct of bureaucrats and politicians, it is that taxpayer advocate curmudgeons, like this writer, are constantly finding fault and exaggerating minor mistakes.
Okay, let’s take a closer look at government efficiency, honesty and accountability based on headline stories from just the last week or so. And while doing so, let’s try to keep in mind Napoleon’s words, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.”
Certainly the following scandal chronicled by Emily Bazar of the Center for Health Reporting can be ascribed to incompetence. Nearly 1 million Californians are stuck in a backlog of Medi-Cal applications. When enrollment began last October, after California expanded coverage under Obamacare, those who might be eligible were told to apply at the Covered California website, the state’s’ health insurance exchange.
As Bazar reports, the Covered California website, which cost $454 million and counting, couldn’t communicate with the county systems for months. The website also had programming defects that caused applications to be wrongly denied and put on hold.
Is it too much to suggest that this treatment of low income Californians, some of whom are getting sick as they wait for coverage, is beginning to make Medi-Cal look like the Veterans Administration that is under fire for delaying care for critically ill vets?
But wait, as infomercials like to trumpet, there’s more!
Writing in the Sacramento Bee, describes featherbedding by the California Department of Transportation. The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) concludes, that the governor’s proposed budget “would result in the program being overstaffed by about 3,500 full-time equivalents beginning in 2014-15 at a cost of more than $500 million.” To address the surplus worker problem, lawmakers approved a minuscule 195-position cut and then “added back in almost exactly that number of positions to develop a $1 billion ‘shelf’ of projects to be built if and when there’s money to build them.” Bottom line for taxpayers -no change in the status quo.
Perhaps this is where Napoleon’s words quoted above should be reexamined in light of what Einstein is said to have added, “But don’t rule out malice.”
But wait, there is still more.
An investigation by the Sacramento Bee reveals that California state departments have been padding their budgets by taking money for unfilled employee positions. While the law requires that the agencies lose the money if a position goes vacant for more than six months, officials have been able to game the system by transferring employees in and out before the deadline, thus avoiding a cut to their budget. While lawmakers just learning of this scam are publicly promising quick action to curtail a practice that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars annually, few are holding their breath in anticipation of a prompt resolution.
These examples of waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars come from recent headlines, and it would not be imprudent to suspect they are just the tip of the iceberg. Is it any wonder that Californians don’t trust state government?
Profligate: adjective; recklessly prodigal or extravagant.
Given the experience of the recent recession, one would think that our state political leadership would have learned the dangers of profligate public spending. The most recent economic bust, and the dot com bust which preceded it, should have served as a stark reminder about the consequences of growing government faster than economic growth and the failure of not planning for another downturn.
But this is California – the state with one of the lowest ratings for effective governance and efficient use of tax dollars. And, by the way, that’s not just a disgruntled conservative complaining. By any objective criteria, including the respected Pew Center for States, California is a state where its citizens are taxed and regulated to a very high degree in return for a dismally poor level of public services.
On Sunday afternoon, just a few hours before the constitutional deadline for passing a budget, the leadership of the majority party almost broke their arms trying to pat themselves on the back for the budget deal they just completed. Thanks to Proposition 25 passed in 2010 – a measure which was sold to voters as increasing transparency and accountability – state budgets can now be passed with a simple majority vote of each house meaning that the far more fiscally responsible Republicans are now wholly shut out of the process. And for that promised transparency? Virtually the entire budget was negotiated behind closed doors among left leaning Democrats.
The result is not good for California taxpayers. First, state spending is projected to skyrocket to over $156 billion dollars. That is a huge increase over just last year.
Second, the budget envisions significant increases in government program spending of an ongoing nature rather than one time expenditures. As any Sacramento observer knows, this is a recipe for disaster. It is California’s proclivity to expand government programs which gets us into such trouble when the inevitable downturn arrives. Moreover, building in higher levels of government programs will surely increase the political pressure for extending the Prop 30 tax hikes which gave California the highest income tax and state sales tax rates in America. But then, we suspect that is exactly the politicians’ strategy.
While the particulars of the budget which reveal its foolishness are too many to list, two are illustrative of why California remains the fiscal laughingstock of the United States.
First, the budget proposes to spend $250 million in “cap & trade” funds for the infamous High Speed Rail project. These dollars are forced exactions from California businesses and utilities under California’s one of a kind “climate change” law. The exactions are clearly a tax – currently being litigated – ultimately borne by all California citizens in the form of higher energy costs and more expensive goods and services.
As for the HSR project itself, earlier in the week Congressional leaders in Washington as much as said that California will get federal funding when hell freezes over. Matching federal funds – and private investments – were what California voters were promised when they approved a bond for a much less expensive rail project years ago. But neither is forthcoming and this is but one reason the project is tied up in litigation.
The irony here is that an arguably illegal revenue stream is being used to fund an illegal public works boondoggle under the theory that the project will somehow reduce global warning. The ultimate absurdity though is that the Legislature’s own analyst concluded that, at least for the first several years, the construction of the project will actually produce more greenhouse gases, not less.
The second insult to taxpayers is the expansion of universal preschool programs demanded by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. The expansion of these programs – demonstrated to have no positive effects on future learning – will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions. The irony here is that earlier last week, in a stunning ruling against California’s grossly ineffective public school system, a judge found that the teacher tenure rules and seniority rules so disadvantaged school children that it violated their civil rights. The ploy by Steinberg to expand preschool had nothing to do with improving education. The sole purpose was to expand the rolls of union paying teachers. And yet this line item in the budget does nothing except increase the size and scope of a corrupt and ineffective bureaucracy.
It has been said that laws are like sausages – it is better not to know what goes into making them. Since the budget is the centerpiece of all annual legislation, perhaps that’s why most Californians choose to remain unaware of what goes into it. But citizens remain ignorant at their own expense.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.