Next governor needs to clean up state government 

Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California six-plus years ago on his pledge to balance the deficit-ridden state budget, vowing to root out “waste, fraud and abuse” with a massive overhaul of state government that would “blow up the boxes.”

It was a popular notion. But the budget remains chronically unbalanced, state government is not noticeably smaller or more efficient, and Schwarzenegger should know it’s impossible for him or any other governor to clean up the mess through management alone.

Schools, colleges and local governments spend the vast majority of the state’s general fund dollars. The state directly spends only about 15 percent, almost all either on prisons or bond service. Ultimately, once the Capitol exhausts its bag of fiscal gimmicks, balancing the budget will involve either cutting public services, raising taxes or some combination of the two.

None of the three candidates for governor acknowledges that reality. Doing so would involve political risk, so they either remain silent (Democrat Jerry Brown) or offer “solutions” that are merely rhetorical (Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner).

They would have us believe, à la Schwarzenegger, that they can close the deficit by applying tough-minded management.

Whitman’s newly published “policy agenda” highlights that intent, saying she’ll reduce the state payroll by 40,000 bodies through attrition, even though a recent Census Bureau report reveals that we already have one of the nation’s lowest per-capita ratios of public workers.

It wouldn’t work, even if she could persuade a Democratic Legislature to go along. That said, making government less wasteful and more effective would not only save some money, but also make the public more amenable to the tougher choices about service reductions and/or tax increases that lie ahead.

Some of Whitman’s points are valid, even if her prescriptions fall short. We should, for example, find out why Texas, with nearly as many prison inmates as California, spends about one-third as much on its penal system. And she’s right that government should be more technologically proficient.

We should be ashamed that California, with 12 percent of the nation’s population, has nearly one-third of its welfare cases. We shouldn’t ignore a report by the Legislature’s budget analyst that the state Department of Transportation has 1,500 too many workers, based on productivity measures.

The California Taxpayers Association has just compiled a report, based on official audits and investigations and journalistic revelations, contending “waste, fraud and mismanagement by state government has cost taxpayers more than $18.9 billion since 2000.”

With a new Field Poll showing their voter approval at a record low, it would behoove Capitol politicians to work on the stuff that irritates their constituents.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns are distributed by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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