Somebody call Meg Whitman: A state Senate staff report released this week dug up precisely the kind of waste in Sacramento that the Republican gubernatorial candidate warned us about. The trouble is, it involves only about 100 state lawyers and auditors, and ending it won't come anywhere close to filling the $25-billion budget hole.
That's the problem with the fight against government bloat, whose champions include not only Whitman but most GOP politicians and some Democrats. It's not that waste, fraud and abuse don't exist, it's that even when they're found, they represent "budget dust" — a tiny percentage of overall expenditures. That doesn't mean government auditors shouldn't be constantly seeking to identify waste, nor that lawmakers shouldn't work to stamp it out. It's just not enough to build a political campaign on. Without other substantive ideas for either cutting spending or raising revenues, eliminating waste won't solve our state's serious budget problems.
The abuse in question has been taking place in the Office of the Inspector General, which is charged with rooting out wrongdoing in the correctional system. About 105 lawyers and auditors in the department are designated as sworn peace officers and given perks usually reserved for law enforcement personnel, such as guns, state-owned cars and a cushy pension plan — despite the fact that they never engage in dangerous police activities such as chasing suspects or engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Maintaining their cars is costing the state an estimated $350,000 a year, and their pensions, which allow for earlier retirement and higher payouts than those of most state employees, are an undeserved benefit that will cost taxpayers millions.
Job classifications in the Inspector General's Office should be changed in short order. There's other waste to be found in the corrections system too. The prison guards union won a remarkably costly contract covering the years 2001 to 2006, when average pay for guards climbed 34%, twice as much as the pay of other state workers. The union's generous benefits were trimmed by the Schwarzenegger administration, but the state might be able to save additional millions by cracking down on overtime abuse; it's not uncommon for guards to make six-figure salaries by piling up overtime. But in a state with an $87-billion general fund budget, the savings are still just budget dust.
Such waste can doubtless be found in other parts of California's budget. Unfortunately, though, there's only a thin layer of fat before those wielding the knife will hit organs and bones: schools, public safety, parks and welfare programs. We're in for a rough year in 2011.