State Crime Lab Task Force Shutdown Vote Sets Example
By K. Lloyd Billingsley, editorial director
In early June the California State Crime Lab Task Force voted to shut itself down. This unusual action sets a good example for other state entities, and for legislators looking to trim state government.
Most Californians have not heard of the California State Crime Lab Task Force, which dates only from 2007. Then Sacramento legislators, in a unanimous vote, charged a 17-member group of academics, police officials, lawyers, criminalists and prosecutors with overseeing state crime labs. At one, according to news reports, a supervisor has a criminal record prosecutors failed to disclose, forcing dismissal of hundreds of cases.
The same lab botched a homicide case by failing to analyze blood samples. Other labs around the state have demonstrated similar lapses, which prompted the move for state oversight. The Task Force duly issued a report, and apparently unconvinced that state-level oversight is the answer, voted to shut itself down.
The creation of a new state task force or agency is not a difficult matter and tends to be popular because it gives the impression that government is “doing something.” On the other hand, shutting down government bodies is practically impossible, even if their usefulness and accountability are questionable. As the late Milton Friedman noted, “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”
True to form, the California Coastal Commission (CCC), started as a temporary body in 1972 but legislators made it permanent in 1976. Whether the coastal environment is any better under this bureaucracy remains dubious.
The CCC was in part a response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill but the Commission can do nothing about the biggest oil leak on the coast, natural seepage from the ocean floor, also near Santa Barbara. The total amount of this seepage, according to a 2009 report in Environmental Science & Technology, exceeds by as many as 80 times the 10.8 million gallons of crude spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
In California’s vast coastal zone, the CCC gets the final say on housing, roads, marinas and docks. It also combines Stalinist-style regulation with Mafia-style corruption. For example, commissioner Mark Nathanson sought to shake down coastal residents for bribes in exchange for permits. In 1993 Nathanson was sentenced to four years and nine months in prison for racketeering, seeking bribes, and filing a false tax return during his stint as a commissioner.
Aside from that blatant corruption, the CCC has harassed property owners and made development in its domains virtually impossible. That limits the supply of homes near the coast and keeps their costs prohibitive. With such obstacles, much California housing development takes place in hot inland areas, where air conditioning gets heavy use in cars and houses alike and drives up energy demands. So on the energy issue, the CCC is environmentally counterproductive.
Unlike the Crime Lab Task Force, the CCC shows no inclination to shut itself down or limit its regulatory reach in any way. Indeed, Peter Douglas, who practically founded the Commission and has served as executive director since 1985, is determined to hold the reigns of power, despite health problems. Instead he should resign and the state should shut down a counterproductive bureaucracy that overrides elected governments and quashes basic rights. But the CCC is not the only state body to deserve such consideration.
The county offices of education also deserve a look. They are one of four layers of bureaucratic sediment through which taxpayer dollars must trickle down before reaching the classroom. Legislators, at least all but the willfully blind, will find many entities a near-bankrupt state could do without. To restore prosperity and fiscal health, California needs to reduce the size and scope of state government, on a meaningful scale.