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California and the West

Quiz Shines Light on Government Waste

March 12, 2000|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — So just how much does a bus for the California Department of Corrections cost: $50,000? $100,000? $250,000? Or $450,000?

A hint from self-professed budget dweeb Dan Carson: "The most absurd answer is usually the right answer."

Carson should know. A newspaper reporter turned state budget analyst, he's made a ritual of posing stumpers like the bus teaser to the Capitol press corps.

Aided by his colleagues at the legislative analyst's office, Carson has compiled a list of questions culled from the pages of a pair of reports issued annually by his boss, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill.

The reports are the result of a review of the governor's budget proposal by Hill and her staff, a painstaking endeavor designed to expose bad ideas and waste. After they prepare the analyses, Carson and his colleagues pick out items of peculiar or dubious distinction for the yearly quiz, which he began in 1998.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 17, 2000 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
CalPERS costs--A quiz from the state legislative analyst's office reprinted in Sunday's editions included an erroneous answer to a question on how much expenditures on external investment advisors for CalPERS have increased since 1992. The correct answer: from $68.9 million to $73.7 million.

"I thought it would be fun to test my former colleagues to see how closely they're reading [the reports] and call attention to a few of our pet issues," said Carson, who spent 10 years as the Capitol bureau chief for the San Diego Union before leaving to earn an MBA at UC Davis and then joining the legislative analyst's office in 1995.

The event offers another insight into the complex process of churning out the California budget.

Gov. Gray Davis' $88-billion spending plan for the next fiscal year, for example, includes items ranging from pricey expenditures for public education to minute expenses for the Bureau of Barbering and Cosmetology.

"The questions in the quiz are really much more trivial than the questions that drive our research," said Steve Boilard, a budget analyst with the analyst's office.

Past quizzes have revealed that only 18 wayward juveniles had their tattoos completely removed in 1997 as a result of the state's $100,000 tattoo removal program. Another disclosed that just three people had taken advantage of a $62-million program to help low-income people with smog check repairs on their cars.

A dozen doughnuts--purchased by Carson at no expense to taxpayers from Fluffy Do-Nuts in Davis--are bestowed on the winner.

Carson said the quiz has increasingly caught the attention of Sacramento bureaucrats, prompting some of them to change their ways. Corrections officials, he said, were singing a different tune after the bus item was included in the 1998 quiz. (The answer was $450,000.)

"They found a way to change the specifications for the bus so that they could cut the cost significantly," Carson said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Test Your State Government Smarts

1. What are "old and cold" cases, and how many have been solved since a $266,000-a-year state program for this purpose was started in 1998-99?

a. Large-scale thefts of food from restaurant freezers

b. Unsolved and inactive homicides

c. Thefts of classic cars

d. Computer searches for heirs of owners of unclaimed property

*

2. The administration is requesting global positioning systems (GPS) for what purpose?

a. To help ambulance drivers locate addresses.

b. To assist in searches for escaped prison inmates.

c. To identify the location of neighborhood recycling centers.

d. To monitor traffic flow on state highways.

*

3. What percentage of vehicle registrations does the Department of Motor Vehicles estimate will be completed using the department's new $3.8-million-a-year Web site during its first two years of operation?

a. 1.2%

b. 10.4%

c. 22.0%

d. 48.3%

*

4. How does the Department of Industrial Relations propose to fund 12 new information technology positions?

a. General Fund

b. Federal funds

c. Tax-deductible corporate donations

d. No one knows

*

5. On average, using Department of Corrections prison inmates for construction projects costs ___ using a private contractor.

a.10% less than

b. The same as

c. 10% more than

d. 31% more than

*

6. A 1992 ballot measure gave CalPERS authority to spend funds for administration of the retirement program for state employees without legislative appropriation. Since then, how much have expenditures for its external investment advisors gone up?

a. From $6 million to $85 million

b. From $5 million to $20 million

c. From $3 million to $10 million

d. From $2 million to $5 million

*

7. The proposed 2000-01 state budget would establish for the first time:

a. A $745,000 beekeeping agricultural inspection program.

b. A $170,000 photography unit to record official state ceremonies.

c. A $3.2-million program to register antique automobiles.

d. A $100,000 task force to study deregulation of cosmetologists.

*

8. A proposed program to encourage prospective teachers to teach in low-performing schools has administrative costs equal to __ for every $1 in fellowships provided to teachers:

a. 60 cents

b. 40 cents

c. 25 cents

d. 5 cents

*

9. What does "ERA" stand for?

a. Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund

b. Educational Revenues Assistance Financing

c. Education Redirection Act Funding

d. End Run Around Finance

*

10. The state cost of resolving a dispute with school districts regarding special education has frequently been reported as totaling $1.6 billion. How much does the legislative analyst's office say the state's liability will be?

a. More than $4 billion

b. About $2 billion

c. Potentially nothing

d. Actually, the school districts probably owe the state $500 million.

Answers 1. b; 2. c; 3. a; 4. d; 5. d; 6. a; 7. b; 8. b; 9. a; 10. c.

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