California: The “Furloughing” of Common Sense

by Howard Rich

How many California state employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?

We’ll find out soon enough.

After steadily growing both its budget and bureaucratic payroll for years, California’s fiscal house of cards collapsed last year, opening a $24 billion hole in its upcoming budget.

In an effort to save a nickel – or rather, $1.4 billion worth of nickels – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed last December that state employees take two days worth of furloughs each month, an idea that was roundly rejected by the state’s government unions. In fact, they sued Schwarzenegger – and after losing their case in court they filed an unfair labor practice claim against him.

Earlier this year, Schwarzenegger relented and trimmed the furlough down to one day a month, although both the governor and Democratic lawmakers are moving to restore the second day in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Similar plans have stoked union outrage in other states and municipalities – most notably Chicago –but it’s California where the furlough debate has been most acutely focused.

Aside from the predictable partisan hyperbole and hand-wringing from the bureaucrats, the central question seems to be this:  What impact, precisely, do furloughs and other government layoffs have on the services currently being provided to California taxpayers?

Obviously, there are those who claim the budget shortfall will result something akin to the state falling into the Pacific or deteriorating into a third world wasteland, but those doom-and-gloom pronouncements were roundly rejected by California voters last month when they declined to approve billions of dollars worth of tax hikes.

Put another way, could furloughs – and/or layoffs – be a good thing?

Take the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which has seen a dramatic increase in customers taking advantage of its online services in the wake of the recent furloughs.

Rather than be “adversely impacted,” Californians simply went online to conduct their business – which begs the question of whether or not some of those furloughed DMV employees should have jobs in the first place. And what of the state’s park system –which could easily be privatized instead of draining hund reds of millions in tax dollars each year?

Sure California’s parks are lovely, but are they an essential government responsibility?

Sadly, common sense assessments like that don’t seem to factor into the decision-making process in Sacramento.

In fact, a recent analysis of the state’s general fund conducted by the San Jose Mercury News found that government growth in California had exceeded the growth in population plus inflation by a whopping $10.2 billion over the previous five years.

That’s a 35% increase – in just five years.

“I wish it hadn’t grown that much,” Gov. Schwarzenegger’s finance director said last February. “Had we stuck with a very austere budget, we would have been in better shape.”[1]

Sadly, that critical lesson remains lost on California’s leaders as they continue to shield government positions that aren’t needed with money that isn’t there – perpetuating the same failed policies that landed the state in its current mess.

In addition to relying on one-time federal bureaucratic bailout money to plug holes, the state’s 2009-10 spending plan is replete with preposterous accounting gimmicks.

For example, in what amounts to “kiting” on a massive scale, California is forcing its taxpayers to shell out $2.3 billion of future taxes this year simply by raising paycheck withholdings.

State leaders also decided to send out June 30 paychecks a day late, shoving another $1.2 billion onto next fiscal year’s books.

Oh, and let’ s not forget those “furloughs.”

California is the world’s eighth-largest economy. Frankly, it’s about time its leaders started running the state more like a business  and less like a pyramid scam.

That process starts with ditching these gimmicks and engaging in a long-overdue discussion of the various responsibilities government should – and should not – undertake.

(Howard Rich is Chairman of Americans for Limited Government.)

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