Is it “bigotry” to shrink state government?

Vol. 16 No. 28 July 21, 2010

Is it “bigotry” to shrink state government?

By K. Lloyd Billingsley, editorial director

SACRAMENTO—Those who believe California state government is too large, and that we ought to make it smaller, are guilty of “conventional bigotry aimed at state employees.” So writes state employee Peter S. Brand in the July 6 Sacramento Bee. The charge will prove educational for all Californians.

Such bigotry, Mr. Brand explains, involves asking whether state employees are “unproductive and inefficient.” He attempts to resolve the issue by claiming that California has the third-lowest ratio of state employees to population. “You could conclude,” he says, that California is getting more out of each employee or that the state is “underserved.”

You could also conclude that a single measure dealing with numbers, misleading in a state with a large retirement population, says nothing about the actual job performance of state employees at the DMV, Department of Education, Board of Equalization, Caltrans and so on. But by Mr. Brand’s reckoning, it is also bigotry to ask if state employees are overpaid.

He believes state employees are actually underpaid but his evidence is one-sided and his case not convincing. He quickly attributes another question to the bigots: “Well, gosh, maybe those government employees are just not very smart.”

Mr. Brand’s own colleagues are graduates of Ivy League schools, Cal or Stanford, with master’s, doctorates and law degrees. This “energetic, innovative and motivated” group, he writes, works for about $65,000 a year when they could easily make more in the private sector. Why, then, does such talent choose to toil for the state for a comparative pittance?

Part of it is surely the retirement benefits, the most generous in the country as The Economist recently noted. But Mr. Brand believes that the benefits are actually lower than retirement benefits in the private sector. So those benefits, which allow state employees to retire in their 50s with most of their salary for life, can’t be the reason that smart people opt for state employment. It has to be something else, and it emerges in Mr. Brand’s question to taxpayers, which they may want to read aloud:

“Do you want your taxes spent on or by someone who is competent and honored to be able to provide a public service or someone who is not?” And what public “service” would that be?

Mr. Brand conveniently fails to identify his own state agency, the California Coastal Conservancy, with an annual budget of $140 million. He calls it “small” but a more accurate term is “redundant.” California had no such agency before 1976, when the coast was still beautiful and the state in better economic shape. And the state had no Coastal Commission before 1972.

Mr. Brand does not argue that California could not manage without the Conservancy. But he renders a service to taxpayers and legislators alike by showcasing the default position of state employees, shared by some legislators.

Government can only expand and must never get smaller. Once started, all state agencies must be kept permanent and untouchable, whatever their cost, utility, or corruption, and regardless of massive state budget deficits and debt. All state jobs constitute “public service.” All state employees are brilliant, energetic and motivated, and Californians should be grateful that their tax dollars are “spent on or by” such people.

Further, state employees are underpaid, and under no circumstances should their salaries ever be reduced. And their pension benefits are also too low. Anything less than worshipful of this default view is simply bigotry.

In reality, trimming state government is prudent policy and long overdue. California could easily get along without the Coastal Conservancy, the Coastal Commission and many other agencies. Legislators should ignore the default view and get on with the task.

That raises the question of would happen to some of the best and brightest, who spend taxpayers’ money and on whom it is spent. Legislators should not be troubled because Mr. Brand has the answer. “Yes,” he writes, “they could easily make much more in the private sector.” Go for it.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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