Arnold Schwarzenegger was busy during his last week in office. While the news media focused on his controversial decision to commute the sentence of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's son, he also made a number of last-minute appointments that drew little scrutiny. They're worth a closer look because of what they reveal about waste and inside deal making in Sacramento, and because of the lessons they offer for Gov. Jerry Brown as he works to balance the state budget.
Three Republicans who split with their party to approve tax increases backed by Schwarzenegger in 2009 were given high-paying appointments to assorted state boards. Ironically, Schwarzenegger himself tried to eliminate one of these boards after his California Performance Review determined that its functions were duplicative. Other boards and commissions deemed wasteful by the review panel were also stuffed last week with politically connected appointees, including Vicki Marti, the wife of Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, who will now serve on the California Medical Assistance Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board.
This kind of thing is neither new nor unusual. Plum appointments have long been used as bargaining chips and rewards by Sacramento insiders. But unlike other governors, Schwarzenegger had tried early in his term to end some of the waste and self-dealing built into this system, making his final surrender all the more dispiriting.
The California Performance Review, a panel of more than 250 state employees, was created by Schwarzenegger in an effort to identify and eliminate waste and inefficiency in state government. It found plenty of both when examining the state's boards and commissions. The panel managed to track down a total of 339 of them, but in its final report it warned that there were probably more hidden within the bureaucracy. Although the members of some are appointed by the governor or legislative leaders, others are appointed by department heads or even by other boards and commissions. In many cases, members are paid handsomely for doing little work.
Take, for example, the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, which met just 14 times in 2010. In one of his final acts in office, Schwarzenegger appointed former state Republican Sens. Roy Ashburn and Dennis Hollingsworth to the board, which pays $128,109 a year. According to the governor's performance review, this board should be eliminated, with its functions taken up by the Office of Appeals within the Department of Labor and Economic Development.
Marti's two appointments, for which she'll earn a combined $167,940, bring with them a comparatively heavy workload, but the review panel said the Medical Assistance Commission should be cut because its job could be performed just as well by a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the occupational safety board's job too could be done by existing agencies.
We don't fault Schwarzenegger for playing a game that was well established long before he took office. And we're by no means advocating a wholesale gutting of boards and commissions, many of which were created for very good reasons and whose elimination might only worsen waste and corruption in Sacramento. Moreover, getting rid of them would make a minuscule dent in the state's $28-billion budget deficit (if all 118 boards recommended for the chopping block by the California Performance Review were cut, it would save only an estimated $15 million).
But this is government waste that's comparatively easy to spot, and Brown can't credibly ask voters for tax hikes or cuts in services without addressing such issues. He should build on the work of Schwarzenegger's review panel by directing his administration to take another look at duplicative boards and unnecessary commissions. And he should devote his considerable political talents to getting them shut down.