Is California 'lean'?

MAY 4, 2010


The May 1-7 issue of The Economist magazine, in a section under California government, includes the article “Looking for Waste,” subtitled “easier blamed than found.”  The article attempted to find waste through one measure, the number of state government employees per 10,000 residents.

As of 2008, California has 108, which the unnamed author, writing from Los Angeles, says makes California “far leaner” than the average of 149 state employees per 10,000 residents and better than all states except Florida and Illinois. Include teachers and California’s public workforces remains “among the nine leanest” according to the article, based on two sources.

The author invokes The California Budget Project, “a mildly left-leaning think-tank in Sacramento.” According to the Project, state government’s largest employer is the university system with 38 percent of the employees and “now struggling as state funding is cut.”  Jean Ross, executive director of The California Budget Project, is not quoted in the piece. In a May 4 opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee, Ross urges legislators to “eliminate ineffective tax loopholes and impose an oil severance tax.”

The other source is the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy (CCSCE) in Palo Alto. There simply has been no “runaway spending,” according to the reckoning of the Center’s Steve Levy.

“Looking for Waste” includes no contrary views from state taxpayer groups and monitors of waste such as California’s Little Hoover Commission, the state Legislative Analyst, and the State Auditor. The article tracks no waste in the state Department of Education, the bureaucracy that controls the largest budget item, education spending. The author does not consider the California state-employee pension crisis and neglects the waste involved in taxpayer funded lobbying. The cost overruns of agencies such as Caltrans also escape notice.

The author of “Looking for Waste” also fails to compare workers in the private sector per 10,000 residents. Measuring state employees against residents, according to some economists, biases the result in favor of states with large retirement populations.

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  1. StevefromSacto
    StevefromSacto 4 May, 2010, 16:36

    You talk about all the things he doesn’t do, but you do not refute his basic argument that California is 49th in the nation in the number of state employees per 10,000 population. If every other state–except perhaps Mississippi–believes that they need more than 150 employees to meet the needs of 10,000 citizens, are they all wrong? The Rabid Right simply cannot let go of the argument that California has the largest government bureaucracy of any state, even though it simply isn’t so.

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  2. Frank Keegan
    Frank Keegan 4 May, 2010, 17:05

    To be accurate, you also have to include county, municipal and public authority employees. Government structure varies greatly by state. For example, Connecticut has no county employees.

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  3. EastBayLarry
    EastBayLarry 4 May, 2010, 17:12

    Well Stevefromsacto, I guess this means there are no fiscal problems in California? We’re doing real well, is that your thought?

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  4. Admin
    Admin Author 5 May, 2010, 12:43

    It’s natural that, if you pay your government employees way more than those in other states, you’ll have fewer of them per-capita.

    So, StevefromSacto, how about cutting government employees’ wages and benefits by 20%, so we can increase the overall number of such employees by 20%?

    — John Seiler

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  5. StevefromSacto
    StevefromSacto 5 May, 2010, 15:45

    Oh sure, John, you’d be supportive of increasing the number of government employees by 20 percent–when pigs fly.

    Of course you might pull the old right-wing flim-flam: Cut the wages and benefits and then say “Ooops, we’ve decided not to increase the number of workers after all.

    Haven’t seen whether or not we pay them “way” more than other states; although the cost of living is higher here than in many other states.

    And Larry, Welcome back. I missed your impeccable logic. Because I said that California does not have the largest bureaucracy in the country, you accuse me of saying there are no fiscal problems in California. I said no such thing.

    California does have serious fiscal problems for many reasons, including corporate tax breaks, reduction in the tax rate far below the 10-11 percent under the Wilson Administration, the arbitrary cut in the vehicle license fee, our failure to tax oil production, etc.

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  6. Larry Littlefield
    Larry Littlefield 6 May, 2010, 07:04

    The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a Census of Governments every five years, most recently for 2007.

    Included is data on all local government employees put together, which adjusts for the varying structure of government. Most of the work of government is done by local government or the private sector (ie. health care) even if paid for by the state and federal governments.

    I compiled this data in the spreadsheet attached to this post, which is focused on New York, my main concern. The post includes detailed information on the methodology; the data includes some counties in California that I sought to compare with New York.

    In this post, I produced a spreadsheet specifically for California, where I know some people, showing how the state’s local government employment and payroll per employee actually compare.

    My take — California’s governments are not overstaffed, but its public employees are paid more than those elsewhere, even with some adjustment for the cost of living.

    My analysis of Census Bureau finance data shows that California used to have among the lowest education spending as a share of its residents’ income in the country in the wake of Prop 13. Later education spending rose to an average amount relative to income, but with borrowed money because Californians didn’t want to pay for it. Pensions were also enhanced, and underfunded.

    The problem, which is a problem for the U.S. generally, is not “spending” now. It is PAYING now for spending THEN, with younger generations the loser and Generation Greed the winner.

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  7. Larry Littlefield
    Larry Littlefield 6 May, 2010, 07:05

    I forgot to include the link with the California spreadsheet. This is the facts, if anyone of any political persuasion is interested.

    Reply this comment

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