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Every Million Counts

March 01, 2004

The state could save $2 million a year by having an outside company maintain the California home page site on the Internet, as other states already do; the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection could save $400,000 a year by selling its King Air support plane, which is not used for firefighting, and using other department planes to get around. And it would cost $33 million less a year to tape-record trials rather than using court reporters. The method works elsewhere.

Those three actions would save only $35.4 million, peanuts in a budget shortfall of billions. It's not exactly the massive "waste, fraud and abuse" that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about in his recall election campaign. But it's a start. State Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill lists scores of other possible savings totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in her analysis of Schwarzenegger's $76-billion general fund budget. Schwarzenegger's Finance Department is combing agencies and departments for waste. The results of this "audit" are expected to be disclosed when he sends budget revisions to the Legislature in May.

And now, the Legislature's leadership is getting active in finding ways to save money and operate state government more efficiently. The new chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), has scheduled six March hearings to determine how various programs are run and to pin down the frequent claims of money lost to waste and abuse.

These are in addition to the regular budget subcommittee meetings on the budget before the Legislature rewrites the governor's plan to meet its own priorities.

More than that, Steinberg said the hearings would focus on how government could run more efficiently. Committee members will question whether programs are meeting the needs for which they were created. One hearing will focus on how the state buys things, including computer equipment and software, a frequent cause of lost millions. Another will study the state's myriad tax credits to see whether these incentives actually work.

Steinberg, a skilled lawmaker with experience as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, also wants to change the budget-writing process so that it's less confrontational. Recent efforts to compromise on budget issues got deadlocked over rigid positions on spending cuts and proposals to raise taxes -- Democrats balking at deep cuts and the GOP balking at taxes.

Steinberg doesn't claim his approach is a silver bullet. But it absolutely is worth the effort. The Schwarzenegger administration, the legislative analyst, the state auditor and everyone else involved in budgeting and spending state dollars should participate. With hard work and a little luck, it could become the groundwork of a leaner, more efficient state government that still fulfills its obligations to the people of California.

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