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Reform, in Small Bites

August 04, 2004

Digging into the 2,500 pages of the California Performance Review is like negotiating the world's least organized buffet line. A thousand different dishes are in no particular order -- salads after the roast beef, cakes among the green vegetables, ice cream with the fish croquettes. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did the smart thing, handing this monster right over to his appointed California Performance Review Commission for study and public hearings.

The first thing the commission needs to do is to get the 1,000 or more scattershot proposals into logical order, putting first those that actually would reorganize the structure of state government to provide services in a more efficient, cost-effective manner.

The report was developed over months by 250 state employees who were sworn to secrecy. Strangely, for a review meant to put the state in order, it mixes policy matters -- some important, some trivial -- with real structural reform. For instance, the review proposes that California join a multi-state lottery in an attempt to overcome "player fatigue." This may be worth considering as a short-term revenue boost, but it's not reorganization.

The many megabytes of the report (or pounds, for those who print it out) are, however, studded with good ideas: Make state government more user-friendly by treating citizens as welcome customers. Allow callers to actually get through to people. Upgrade the computerized handling of such things as tax and fee receipts, drivers' license renewal and data storage. It's what any good business would study periodically. Such logical internal changes could be implemented by the governor by executive order, giving a boost to the more difficult changes that will need legislative approval or a change in the state Constitution.

The authors of the review contend that it would save $32 billion over the next five years and cut the state workforce by 12,000. That's a big and already disputed claim. But just by making government sleeker, the state would collect dividends. For instance, California has too many agencies that deal with energy, most created in response to some temporary emergency. They need to be consolidated. The proposed Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security is another good idea (although "homeland security" is superfluous, unless it would bring more federal money to California). But even that reasonable proposal has its head-scratchers, such as inclusion of the Department of Fish and Game merely because game wardens carry a badge. The department's primary job is to manage natural resources, not enforce the law or chase terrorists.

More than 100 boards and commissions would be eliminated. Most of them are irrelevant or serve a narrow special interest. But the review commission should be selective. It should reject the proposed abolition of the state Air Resources Board, composed of state and local experts. It's the agency that put California environmentally ahead of the rest of the country, and it continues to drive the pursuit of cleaner air.

Reforms and reorganizations often failed in the past because they sought to do too much at once. Anyone whose ox might be gored, from state employee unions to environmental and consumer protection groups, is already squealing. The challenge before the commission this year is to craft a practical plan that pays obvious dividends and can gain political support. In other words, don't try to eat the whole buffet at once.

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