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Our View: California needs some serious CPR

Posted: May 30, 2009 7:12 p.m.
Updated: May 31, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Cut, cut, cut.

Boo-hoo, I lost. Now we’ve got to cut, cut, cut.

That was our governor’s girlie-man response to the May 19 whupping he took at the ballot box.

What happened to the Great Reformer we elected in 2003 to replace a clueless sap who could barely manage his bad ’70s hairdo, much less the world’s seventh-largest economy?

That’s what Supervisor Mike Antonovich and Sen. George Runner would like to know. In recent weeks, both elected representatives have called on the governor to get back with the program he started in 2004.

It was called the California Performance Review, and it was going to completely restructure state government as we know it.

Straight out of the box office, our newly enthroned Austrian import impaneled 275 thinkers from industry, education and elsewhere and tasked them with a top-to-bottom review of California’s Byzantine bureaucratic systems.

They did their job. Published in August 2004, California’s aptly acronymed CPR report contained 1,200 recommendations for streamlining hundreds of duplicative, unnecessary and consumer-unfriendly departments, agencies and boards.

Fully implemented, their advice would save $32 billion over five years.

“The organization of California’s state government today does not facilitate rational decision-making in the public’s interest,” the report stated.

“Common functions and responsibilities that should be subject to common management have been split between multiple departments and agencies creating unnecessary duplication, confusion and waste.”

The current system “permit(s) and sometimes encourage(s) departments to focus more upon their own survival than the public’s need and interest,” it stated.

Schwarzenegger was clearly pleased with the CPR panel’s work. Sharing the report in January 2005, he told the Little Hoover Commission: “Reform of California state government — its practices, processes and organization — is a daunting but long overdue task. It is my sworn duty as governor to champion the necessary reforms so that California can reclaim its position as the most innovative, well managed, progressive and economically vibrant state in the union.”

The Little Hoover Commission was duly impressed, terming the report “the closest California has come in a century to recognizing the need for change and the breadth of change that is necessary.”

Politicians and pundits throw around cheap phrases like “special interests” and “wasteful spending” without specifying whom or what they’re talking about, but the CPR report identified such without pretense.

As an isolated example, it said of the Department of Health and Human Services:

“Businesses involved in health or community care have to contact different entities to become licensed. There are two different departments with the responsibility for nutrition. Health care data is collected by multiple departments within the agency and stored in 60 different information systems.”

Want to sign up for food stamps, Medi-Cal or CalWORKs? You go to three different places that use three different sets of rules to determine whether you’re eligible.

“By consolidating eligibility determination it would be possible to reduce fraud and free up personnel who could be better deployed to deliver services to program recipients,” the report stated.

If it sounds like a no-brainer, it was — and it had some good brains behind it.

So what happened?

The CPR panel recommended the elimination of 88 boards and commissions. The governor touted the effort in his State of the State address and sent it to the Legislature.

In July 2005, as part of that year’s budget package, the Legislature abolished eight boards and commissions.

Not 88, but eight — such as the Agriculture Cooperative Bargaining Advisory Committee, which hadn’t met for years, and something called the Interagency Aquatic Invasive Species Council, which was on the books but never formed so it wasn’t really part of the problem.

CPR then went into a coma and has been on life support ever since.

But the Legislature’s own beat goes on. Even the nonexistent Aquatic Invasive Species Council came back to life this past February in the form of the brand-new California Invasive Species Council, complete with its own board and an additional, state-appointed advisory panel to boot.

And we wonder why California has a third-world bond rating.

Antonovich and Runner are exactly right to suggest that CPR needs some CPR.

Antonovich had all sorts of advice during his State of the County address last week, such as the consolidation of the Franchise Tax Board and the Board of Equalization.

It was a good idea last week and it was a good idea in 2004, when the CPR panel recommended combining those functions — along with the DMV’s vehicle license fee collection division — into a single tax agency.

But Antonovich went farther.

Form a new commission, he said, with representatives from California’s top business schools (essentially, bring back CPR) and call a special session of the Legislature to implement the reforms.

Adopt a two-year budget so that our local school boards and city and county governments will know what they’ve got to deal with, rather than the on-again, off-again tax grabs that happen every time Sacramento goes into a panic.

Relegate the Legislature to part-time status so that our lawmakers actually have to go to work and remember what life was like in the real world — and bring that knowledge back to Sacramento so they can craft better (and less) legislation.

Repeal term limits because they promote instability and inexperience. No sooner do the lawmakers get a grip on things than they’re forced to make way for a replacement who doesn’t know where the bones of waste are buried.

Repealing term limits might be a bitter pill for the voters to swallow; after all, we imposed those limits in 1990 to get rid of Speaker-for-Life Willie Brown and to break the cycle of gridlock and profligate spending, the idea being that “fresh blood” wouldn’t be so beholden to special interests.

It’s clear that term limits haven’t solved the problem. If lengthening lawmakers’ terms is part of a bigger solution, at least it’s worthy of discussion.

And that’s what we need most right now — discussion. Not just “cut, cut, cut,” but serious discussion by serious people who are willing to do the hard work and create, as Schwarzenegger said in 2005, “an integrated, efficient and responsive state government that restores public trust.”

As Schwarzenegger once said: “Accomplishing this great task will require strong leadership, unwavering vigilance and clarity of purpose, to which I am committed.”

It’s not too late, Arnold.



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