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By Jon Coupal – March 3, 2024

The reaction from politicians to California’s budget deficit – now estimated by the Legislative Analyst to be around $73 billion – breaks down into two camps: the state must either reduce spending or find more revenue. (Euphemism for raising taxes.)

In reality, even the most progressive legislators realize that their dream of unending growth in government is crashing headlong into reality. Days ago, Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas acknowledged that the ultimate goal of single-payer health care won’t be on the table anytime soon.

Of course, any reduction in spending will be accompanied by the obligatory gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair. It is easier to extract a sirloin steak from the jaws of a Doberman than to get politicians and government bureaucrats to reduce their record levels of spending. To the tax spenders, all government spending is “essential,” notwithstanding the fact that state spending has doubled in six years.

Ordinary Californians reject the premise that all state spending is “essential” and, in fact, think much of it is superfluous and wasteful. A Public Policy Institute of California survey earlier this month asked, “Do you think . . . state government[s] waste a lot of the money we pay in taxes, waste some of it, or don’t waste very much of it?” Overall, 45% of Californians perceived that “a lot” of their money was being wasted and 46% believed “some” of their money was wasted.

Specific examples abound. If the High-Speed Rail project were put before the voters after its 14-year history of broken promises, polling reveals it would be derailed. And volumes could be written about the $30 billion in EDD fraud.

An excellent exposé in CalMatters by Sameea Kamal and Jeremia Kimelman reveals the massive non-compliance with legislative mandates regarding the preparation of reports that are supposed to track the effectiveness of government programs. The title of the article is “Legislators wanted 1,100 reports on how California’s laws are working. Most haven’t arrived.”

When it creates a new program, the Legislature frequently requires the affected state or local agencies to prepare a report back to the Legislature about the performance of the new program. The purpose, according to the Legislature itself, is to “provide crucial oversight to ensure effective implementation of programs.”

But according to CalMatters, “more than 70% of the 1,118 reports due in the past year were not submitted to the Office of Legislative Counsel, the public repository for the reports . . . And about half of those that were filed were late. (About 230 were reports required from multiple agencies.)”

The absence of reports on the efficacy of past legislation makes future legislation like a journey into the unknown. CalMatters correctly contends that the “reports could be used to avoid introducing duplicative or unnecessary bills.” But a more fundamental purpose would be to determine which laws or programs should simply be repealed or abandoned entirely.

Compounding the problem of missing reports is that there is little data about which reports are simply late and that there is little notice when they are completed. The lack of a coherent process for tracking legislatively mandated reports is why, according to CalMatters, “some lawmakers and consultants . . . don’t often use the [Legislative Counsel] website,” relying instead on alternative sources of information.

In theory, California has multiple avenues for conducting oversight. The California State Auditor produces a number of useful reports, including a periodic report on “statewide issues and state agencies that represent a high risk to the State or its residents.”

The Legislature’s own Joint Legislative Audit Committee, known as JLAC, is supposed to conduct periodic reviews, but its activity in recent years has been limited. District Attorneys and Grand Juries at the local level generally don’t have the resources to engage in deep dives as to what programs are performing well and which are not. (Although it should be noted that several county District Attorneys began blowing the whistle on the extent of EDD fraud long before the state ever took action.)

The real problem with the oversight, performance reviews, and audits is that, frankly, they’re not sexy. Robust oversight rarely provides an opportunity for a press conference or photo-op as does the launching of some new program.

But sexy or not, scrutiny of whether existing programs are performing as intended should be high on the list of ways to get more bang for each taxpayer buck. Especially when California is $73 billion in the hole.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

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