Monday, October 26, 2009

California Legislators Got Drunk on Stock Market Gains

I've been studying California's budget. From 1998 to 2009, California added over 80,000 full time government employees. That means future taxpayers must pay for an additional 80,000+ pensions, lifetime medical benefits, and annual salaries. However, adding 80,000 more government employees is not the major problem, as long as we reform their generous long-term benefits.

The biggest problem is that starting in 1999, California's legislators assumed revenue/tax numbers based on stock market gains/sales and spent accordingly. From 1998 to 2000, spending jumped dramatically, but from 1999 to 2008, expenditures declined only once--right after the tech bubble popped, in 2003/2004. (Note: the tech bubble's peak was in 2000; hit a low in September 2002; and continued in a tight range until 2007.) Basically, it seems our legislators banked on an ever-increasing stock market to finance spending. Oops.

Public sector unions aren't helping. Even though the stock market money isn't there anymore, public sector unions are still acting like it's 2004. Behind closed doors, various unions have negotiated generous benefit packages, such as lifetime medical benefits and pensions. Unfortunately, it is difficult to project the cost of such benefits because no one knows how long a state employee will survive after retiring. As a result, if taxpayers desire consistently balanced budgets, it makes more sense to pay public sector employees higher salaries while reforming their generous benefits. (CalPERS, the state's public pension/health care fund, already has over $200 billion in assets.) Fiscal reform is possible without threatening state workers' job security, because government workers will continue to be unionized--reform would affect only the hard-to-project costs inherent in pensions and lifetime medical benefits.

As far as education is concerned, I am concerned we are spending too much money on it without seeing results. The state's website indicates that approximately 50% of the General Fund is reserved for K-14 education. In addition, California's Constitution requires that school coffers receive first crack at the largess:

"From all state revenues there shall first be set apart the moneys to be applied by the State for support of the public school system and public institutions of higher education."

Education spending is probably a sacred cow that needs to be slimmed down before we see any real change in California's fiscal health.

See here for a detailed webpage outlining the major issues, with plenty of stat-porn for the political wonks.

Bonus: Meg Whitman promises to cut 40,000 government jobs--back to 2004 levels--if we elect her Governor; however, I am unclear how she will accomplish that goal without incurring massive litigation and settlement costs. Perhaps the 40,000 positions she wants to cut are non-union or part-time? If so, then it doesn't appear that cutting these positions will reform the problem of generous public sector benefits, which are typically reserved for full-time government workers.

Meg Whitman is probably the most successful female CEO in Silicon's Valley's history, but I wish she'd be more specific about how she plans on accomplishing her goals. If she does well in the Governor's race, expect to see her as the GOP's Vice Presidential candidate in 2012.

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