Reporting from Sacramento — Strike from the list of state workers' perks a free cellphone on which to gab.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday ordered tens of thousands of state employees to turn in their mobile phones. Brown, a notorious tightwad, says he can't imagine that their 96,000 cellphones are necessary for the people's business, and he wants the number cut in half.
"It is difficult for me to believe that 40% of all state employees must be equipped with taxpayer-funded cellphones," Brown said in a statement. "The current number of phones out there is astounding."
The decision reflects Brown's sensitivity to taxpayers' perception of how the state spends their money, especially while he is preparing to ask taxpayers to extend billions of dollars in recent tax hikes instead of letting them expire.
"I'm opening every closet door and pulling out the drawers and finding out what's there that shouldn't be there," he told reporters between meetings in the Capitol on Tuesday.
He also pledged to immediately relinquish his own state phone. "I have it in my desk ready to turn in," he said.
The projected $20 million in cellphone savings will barely dent the deficit, but Brown's order sends a message that he is irritated with bureaucrats who take advantage of state resources.
Abuses have been documented. In 2007, California's state auditor, Elaine Howle, identified a parks department worker who made more than 3,300 personal calls in a little more than a year. A Sonoma State employee used his school-issued cellphone and e-mail account to run a private business.
The following year, Howle found that the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board didn't even know who had all of its cellphones and BlackBerries.
San Jose State political scientist Larry Gerston said Brown is wise to be looking for change under the couch cushions.
"It's a symbolic statement that screams, 'I am doing everything I can to eliminate waste before I go to the voters to ask you to pay any more taxes,' " Gerston said.
The cellphone order is one of several cost-containment moves that Brown has made in his first weeks in office. He has also eliminated the office of the Secretary of Education, abolished funding for the first lady's office and gave back almost all the state money that was set aside for his transition.
"In the face of a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, a cellphone might not seem like a big expense," Brown said. "But spending $20 million, and perhaps far more than that, on cellphones can't be justified."
As Californians may recall, the 72-year-old Brown is not especially adept at using electronic devices. During the gubernatorial campaign, he neglected to hang up after leaving a voicemail for a union official and was caught on tape chatting with advisors when one of the group called Brown's opponent a "whore."
The governor says state-issued cellphones should be reserved for department and agency executives and other employees who must be reachable 24 hours a day. Even halving the number of phones would still leave too many in circulation, he said: "I want every department and agency to examine and justify all cellphone usage."
Breaking a contract with a wireless provider is often easier said than done. Contracts are typically locked in for two years. Ending them can cost hundreds of dollars, which in some cases could be more expensive than letting a state worker chatter on.
Brown acknowledges as much. He said it is possible the state may not be able to meet his June 1 goal in his executive order, which assumes the average state cellphone is costing taxpayers $36 a month. But "it is also conceivable we can do it earlier," he said.
"We are reviewing the order and will work closely with the state and its employees to help them comply," said John Taylor, a spokesman for Sprint, which provides much of the state's cellphone service.
Lucy Hood, director of the Institute for Communication Technology Management at USC, said there are an estimated 280 million celphones in use nationally. Many are used for work purposes about half the time, according to one survey. She said Brown is doing the same thing many businesses are doing in this sour economy: cutting back on the phones they provide.
Times staff writers Shane Goldmacher and Evan Halper contributed to this report.