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Our View: State deficit solutions already exist

Posted: April 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: April 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.
 

Cut programs or raise taxes? In Sacramento, it’s the same song and dance every year.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democrats say the public “deserves” to vote on a tax-hike extension. Republicans say the public “deserves” to vote on a spending cap and pension reforms.

Republican or Democrat, our politicians see only two ways out of California’s annual budget mess. Somebody wins.

Everybody loses. At the end of the day, they use smoke and mirrors — bloated, unattainable revenue expectations — to fake a balanced budget and kick the can down the road. Then next year, they bring back the band and strike up the same old tune.

The public “deserves” better. The public deserves more than two choices. Make no mistake, there is a Door No. 3 that already has specific budget-trimming solutions.

And the politicians are ignoring it. The answer is literally sitting on a shelf somewhere in Sacramento gathering dust. They simply refuse to use it. Why?

For all his failures, ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did at least one thing half-right. Elected in October 2003, by February 2004, he had gathered 275 of the state’s best minds in education, industry and politics, locked them in a room (figuratively, anyway) and didn’t let them out until they had reshaped California’s bureaucratic systems.

On paper, that is. Sadly, that’s as far as the effort went. For all his muscles, Schwarzenegger proved himself too much a “girlie man” to push his reforms through an entrenched Legislature.

But the plan is as sound now as it was then.

It was called the California Performance Review. Published in August 2004, the report contained 1,200 recommendations for streamlining hundreds of duplicative, unnecessary and consumer-unfriendly departments, agencies and boards. Fully implemented, the plan would save $32 billion (in 2004 dollars) over five years.

The five-year window was just for illustration. The savings would have been permanent.

Now, lots of politicians will say they’re for “government reform” without getting into specifics, speaking of it as if it’s some nebulous, far-off thing that involves gutting somebody else’s sacred cow of a program.

Don’t listen to them. They’ve never read the California Performance Review.

It’s extremely specific. It doesn’t gut programs. It consolidates entire bureaucracies to make state government more efficient.

The Little Hoover Commission called it “the closest California has come in a century to recognizing the need for change and the breadth of change that is necessary.”

Chapter 1 sets the tone for the report.

“Californians are dynamic, adaptable and always focused on the future. Our state is the birthplace of the Mars rover, the Digital Age and the Biotechnology Revolution. ... But California’s state government is antiquated and ineffective. It simply does not mirror the innovative and visionary character of our state.

“Instead of serving the people, it is focused on process and procedure. It is bureaucracy at its worst — costly, inefficient and in many cases unaccountable.”

Some examples:
* “Businesses involved in health or community care have to contact different entities to become licensed. There are two different departments with responsibility for nutrition. Health care data is collected by multiple departments within the (Health and Human Services) Agency and stored in 60 different information systems.”

* “Separate eligibility determinations are made for the food stamps, Medi-Cal and CalWorks programs. 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.”

* “Today, more than 20 state entities are responsible for education and workforce-preparation policy, but none of these entities has direct accountability for preparing California’s current and future workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow. ... Even if all of these entities were successfully preparing Californians for high-wage jobs, that information would be anecdotal at best because California does not have a government-wide process for evaluating the performance and productivity of state programs.

The problems didn’t grow overnight, the report notes. It took decades for our state agencies to become so “unnecessarily complicated and fragmented” that they “promote bureaucratic inertia and permit, and sometimes, encourage departments to focus more upon their own survival than the public’s needs and interest.”

“What is productivity?” the report asks (presumably because it would be read by bureaucrats unfamiliar with the term).

“Typically leaders have managed deficits by cutting programs or by raising taxes. Improving productivity is the third option. Productivity tools track the way resources are used to deliver programs and assist in identifying ways to deliver the same or greater service levels for less.”

Productivity is elusive when your state government is a “complex web” of 11 agencies, 79 departments and more than 300 boards and commissions, the report notes.

So the California Performance Review panel recommended fixes.

A first wave of reform was to eliminate 88 of those boards and commissions — and not just the little ones you’ve never heard of. The Franchise Tax Board, State Board of Equalization and the DMV’s Vehicle License Fee collection function would be combined into a single entity.

(Our newly elected BOE representative, George Runner, agrees with that one. He’s one of the few politicians we know who was elected to an agency he’d like to eliminate.)

Technically, the Legislature did act on this first wave of reforms. But rather than eliminate 88 boards and commissions, it eliminated just eight — and later reconstituted at least one of them.

The second wave would have “transformed the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency into the Corrections and Rehabilitation Department by removing duplicative functions and consolidating management authority.”

Gov. Brown seems to be taking the opposite approach. Rather than consolidate functions for increased productivity and efficiency, he speaks of further fracturing state services by shifting responsibilities to counties — without shifting the commensurate funding to the counties or eliminating the state bureaucracies behind them.

The California Performance Review was touted as just the beginning. It included the more obvious places to start the reform process, with the intent of more to follow in the future.

It never got off the ground.

Schwarzenegger was the outsider who was going to break all of the boxes and make California government work.

Brown was the insider who was going to cut through the red tape and make California government work.

Californians are sick of having only two options.

The public doesn’t “deserve” politicians who force them to pick between program death and taxes.

The public deserves better. The public deserves politicians who will take Door No. 3, dust off the California Performance Review and enact its reforms — for starters.

Until it happens, we say no to program cuts and no to new taxes.

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