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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