State: a sea of cluelessness

AUGUST 13, 2010

Earlier this week I beat up on the California High Speed Rail Authority for failing to provide a coherent number of the number of contractors working for it. While this is indeed a stunning example of a bureaucracy not exercising proper control over the billions of dollars it consumes – and it will consume $40 billion to $70 billion more over the coming years as it attempts to lay down 800 miles of bullet train tracks across the state – it is far from the only such example.

Around the same time we published that contractor story the California State Auditor released a new report called Data Reliability: State Agencies’ Computer-Generated Data Varied in Their Completeness and Accuracy. It is, like most Auditor reports, a compelling expose of state offices and agencies that don’t consider accountability their highest mission.

Let’s start with the state Department of Public Health, which oversees the disposal of low-level radioactive waste. I wrote about problems here five months ago (click here to read that story) and it turns out that nothing much has changed there:

  • Despite joining the [four-state] compact in 1987, California has yet to establish a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility…
  • The department’s Radiologic Health Branch (branch) cannot demonstrate that its inspections of those that possess radioactive material and radiation-emitting machines are performed timely in accordance with federal and state requirements.
  • More than five years after the effective date of the law, the branch is still unable to provide required information on the amount of low-level waste generated in California.

Then there are problems with the Department of Social Services’ Safely Surrendered Baby Law. According to the law, distraught or otherwise impaired parents can “surrender” a baby (less than 72 hours old) to the department with no fear of prosecution for child abandonment. Problems, though, are myriad:

  • Safe-surrender sites are violating state law by disclosing confidential information on parents who surrendered babies.
  • Counties have incorrectly classified babies as safely surrendered or abandoned. Children improperly classified as safely surrendered may not be allowed access to information on their parents even though they may have the legal right to the information.

Worst of all, though, is the situation over at the Department of Corrections – its $10 billion a year in expenditures sucks up 10 percent of the General Fund. It’s also a costly mess with little actual oversight of its spending:

  • While inmate population decreased by 1 percent in the last three years, Corrections’ expenditures increased by almost 32 percent during the same time period.
  • Corrections lacks the data necessary to determine how factors such as overcrowding, the transition of the inmate health care function, escalating overtime, or aging inmates impact the cost of its operations.
  • Nearly 25 percent of the inmate population is incarcerated under the three strikes law – which requires individuals to serve longer terms. We estimate the cost to the State of the increase in sentence length for these inmates will total $19.2 billion over the duration of their sentences.
  • Overtime was so prevalent that we identified more than 8,400 correctional officers whose total pay for fiscal year 2007-08 exceeded the top pay rate of supervisors two levels above them.

Wait, we still have parolees to worry about because, apparently, Corrections isn’t all that concerned of who gets released from prison or why:

  • Of the 56,329 parolees discharged, parole agents did not submit discharge review reports for 2,458 deported parolees, and 2,523 other parolees. Thus, Corrections lost jurisdiction over these individuals and the opportunity to recommend that the board retain these parolees, including 775 individuals originally convicted of violent or serious offenses.
  • As a result of internal investigations and findings since December 2007, Corrections stated it plans to implement a number of changes to improve its discharge process. However, it id not provide us any evidence to demonstrate that it has implemented any of its draft polices and regulations.

Far from an aberration, the inability of the state’s bullet train authority to provide a single number is, in fact, just one more example of the mediocrity that plagues state bureaucracies.

-Anthony Pignataro

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