By Mark Paul
Special to Calbuzz
Meg Whitman says she wants to run California state government like a business.
Given all we’ve learned in the past decade about business — Enron, IndyMac, Bernie Madoff, Wall Street — some people hear that as a threat. I prefer to be hopeful. Long mired in consultant-speak and ideology, California government and politics could use a dose of the practices by which the best businesses thrive — open-eyed realism about a firm’s strengths and weaknesses; rigorous analysis; strategic thinking.
That hope withered the other day when I heard one of Whitman’s recent radio ads. “We know spending has been out of control in Sacramento,” she crooned from the speakers. Et tu, Meg? Say it ain’t so.
The only people who “know” state spending is “out of control” don’t know what they’re talking about. According to the latest budget estimates, the state will spend less this year than it did in 2005, when there were two million fewer people in California. And as this chart shows, when measured as a share of California ’s personal income, state spending is at the lowest level in a generation. If it’s smaller government you want, California has already got it, the smallest since Ronald Reagan’s final years in Sacramento .
When they say what they’ll do about “out of control” spending, Whitman and Steve Poizner, her rival for the Republican nomination for governor, point quickly to how many people work for the state. Here, too, they have flunked their business due diligence.
Yes, more people work for the state today than a generation ago. As this chart shows, their number has almost doubled in the last 35 years. But so has California ’s population. If state government employment were increasing faster than state population, you’d be worried. In this chart, you can see the opposite is true. The number of state employees per 1,000 Californians has declined since the mid-1970s.
And there’s more to the story. Not everybody counted in the tally of state employees cited by Whitman and others is a state worker in the usual understanding of that term. More than 120,000 of them work for the University of California and California State University , public institutions that get some of their money from the state but control their own hiring.
The University of California , in particular, is a collection of many businesses, involving everything from undergraduate teaching to research institutes to hospital medical centers to nuclear weapons laboratories.
Most of the revenue for UC comes from sources other than the state budget — research grants, student fees, patient reimbursements for medical care, management fees, gifts. That explains how the university added nearly 25,000 people to its “state employee” headcount over the past decade even though it today receives less direct support from the state than it did in 2001.
It’s nonsensical to count all those new UC employees, who get paid from sources other than the state, as evidence of “out of control” spending in Sacramento . But that’s the horse Whitman is riding.
When you take all the university employees out of the mix, and look only at state civil servants — the blue line in this chart—there’s been almost no change over a generation. But the story doesn’t end there.
As everybody knows, California over the past three decades has locked up a lot more criminals, in the process quadrupling the number of people working in corrections. Corrections employees now make up a third of the state workforce, and an even larger share of workers paid from the deficit-ridden general fund.
In this chart, the green line shows that, when university and corrections employees are taken out of the mix (and they make up half the total), what people think of as the state “bureaucracy” has shrunk dramatically relative to California ’s population. In fact, since 2001, the number of non-college, non-corrections state workers has barely increased — even as the number of Californians has grown by the equivalent of the state of Louisiana .
That’s why, if you examine California state government as a business, one of the first things you are likely to notice is how few people it employs compared to others in its “industry.” Over that past decade, California has ranked between 46th and 50th among the states in the annual federal listing comparing state workforces to population; its state workforce is about 25 percent smaller than the national average.
And if you think about it, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since 1967, every California state budget has been proposed — and later subjected to line-item veto — as by a fiscally conservative governor: Reagan, Brown, Deukmejian, Wilson, Davis, and Schwarzenegger, skinflints every one of them. If you believe California is out of line in how many people it employs in state government, you haven’t been paying attention.
Control the size of the state workforce? Sorry, Meg and Steve. Been there, done that.
Mark Paul, senior scholar and deputy director of the California program at the New America Foundation, is co-author, with Joe Mathews, of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How It Can Be Fixed (UC Press, forthcoming).