Make state government more efficient, less expensive

By Steven Hill, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2011

Having four separate agencies controlling finance and taxes, and three separate entities covering education, seems like overkill. And do we really need a lieutenant governor?

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed many solutions for California’s political and economic crises. Yet there’s one rock the governor could lift higher to find big savings: the duplication of state offices. Many could be consolidated and in some cases eliminated.

Brown made a good start in January when he eliminated the secretary of education post, which was, as one pundit said last year, “about as useful as a third nostril.” But unfortunately, California still has a few more extraneous “nostrils.” For example, we still elect a superintendent of public instruction — annual salary, $151,000 — in addition to having a state Department of Education and a state Board of Education. All of these offices have staffs that cost a lot of money. Do we really need three separate agencies for education?

And does anyone know what the lieutenant governor does? Political insiders have jokingly said the job description is to “get up, read the paper, see if the governor is dead; if not, go back to sleep.” Yet for this largely ceremonial post, the lieutenant governor gets paid about $130,000 annually and is served by staff members who also pull down good salaries. Can’t we simply eliminate this office and let the secretary of state fill in when the governor is out of state or incapacitated?

Another example of what appears to be pointless duplication is in the area of finance and budgets. Does anybody know what the Board of Equalization does? It is one of at least four governmental agencies that deal with some aspect of taxes, finances, budgets and assets. The others are the state controller, state treasurer and the Department of Finance.

The website of the Board of Equalization says it collects revenue for the state in the form of sales taxes and other taxes. The four board members, elected from massive districts with more than 9 million residents each, earn an annual salary of about $130,000 apiece. Do you remember who you voted for to fill your district’s seat on this board?

The state controller, with an annual salary of $139,000, acts as the state’s chief fiscal officer to make sure that the governor’s proposed $127-billion budget is spent properly, in addition to helping administer two of the nation’s largest public pension funds. The controller also serves as an ex officio member of the Board of Equalization. Is such redundancy necessary? The state treasurer (salary: $139,000 a year) is responsible for the state’s investments and financing. Meanwhile, the administration of the state’s budgets, financial analyses and planning is under the Department of Finance.

Each of these agencies is served by a sizable staff. Couldn’t we combine two or three of the agencies into a single one by streamlining their responsibilities and duties?

Believe me, I’m not a knee-jerk, anti-tax “cut government to the bone” type of guy. Government performs essential duties that help produce something called “civilization,” of which I am quite fond. And in my view, too many anti-tax zealots are the ultimate “free lunchers” who want all the good things government does for them but don’t want to pay for them. But there seems to be a great deal of overlap in some of these offices.

As long as we’re cleaning out the closet, let me propose a related idea that might seem radical but actually is familiar. Instead of electing all these offices, why not have the governor appoint most, if not all of the statewide offices and create a cabinet, much like the president does?

The current setup of elected officials is unnecessarily expensive. First, taxpayers have to pay for all those statewide elections for each office, and frankly, most voters know little about the offices or candidates. We usually end up electing a host of competing personalities who have little incentive to act as a team serving the state’s chief executive. Each elected official rules over his or her private fiefdom, sometimes as a springboard to personal ambitions that may conflict with the goals of the governor. They may even be elected from different political parties, as was the case when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor and John Garamendi was lieutenant governor.

Having the governor appoint his or her own cabinet would save time and money on elections, and the implementation of state business would be better coordinated and more effective.

With little relief in sight for the state’s fiscal crisis, we need to rethink these matters. Conventional solutions won’t do.

Steven Hill is the author of, most recently, “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age” and “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.”

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