Conventional wisdom, as promoted by most in the media, says it will be virtually impossible for Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to fix California's huge deficit. The implication is that every dollar spent is essential and cutting any of it will result in death and destruction. Not exactly.
Citizens Against Government Waste (www.cagw.org), in association with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation, has produced the "2003 California Piglet Book," which details billions of dollars in misspent funds, the elimination of which -- along with an improving economy -- could wipe out the state's deficit, reform government and put California back in the black.
CAGW has found $2.5 billion in waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in the bloated Medi-Cal program alone. That's 10 percent of its $25 billion budget. Other misspent funds include $200 million in overpayments in the food stamp program; $127 million in fraud in the unemployment insurance program; $62 million in marketing expenses for the University of California, which turns away half of its freshman applicants; $3,121 is being paid by the Department of Health Services for wheelchairs that should cost $622; and $1,560 in fitness bonuses have been offered to 7,000 state police officers. Shouldn't fitness be part of their job description?
California newspapers, from the Los Angeles Times to the Stockton Record to the Sacramento Bee, have recently reported on huge sums of money stolen by doctors, dentists and pharmacists, among others, from the Medi-Cal program. According to the San Jose Mercury News (March 15, 2003), another example of fraud and inefficiency lies with the Department of Mental Health's "Rolls Royce of treatment plans." The News reported the department signed a no-bid contract with Liberty Healthcare, in which the expenditure of "$1 million to set up a program expected to keep one sexually violent predator fed, clothed, housed and watched over in San Jose for the next year" was actually contemplated. Stuff like this permeates the budget.
Forty percent of the state budget is spent on education. There have been dire warnings from Democrats against cutting those expenditures, as if spending and achievement were connected. Maybe Schwarzenegger can start his cuts with professors at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, who, according to the Los Angeles Times (May 15, 2003) are spending large amounts of time on their computers for nonacademic purposes, such as visiting Internet sex sites. The Times reported professors resisting efforts to stop them from viewing pornography on grounds that to do so would interfere with academic freedom.
The Piglet Book effectively undermines arguments against cutting the budget. It is an expose that will outrage taxpayers. Schwarzenegger should encourage every Californian to read it. He can do other things to publicize waste, fraud and abuse of the taxpayer's money.
Having come from show business, he should establish a mechanism whereby he can let the voters decide if they want their money spent on various unnecessary, outmoded or never-needed programs. Put it all on television and have a weekly "abuse report" whereby taxpayers through the Internet or by telephone could register their votes on keeping and paying for or jettisoning and saving money on various programs. Not only would people feel more a part of their government, opponents of spending reductions would be hard-pressed to go against the stated will of the people.
When Ronald Reagan became governor of California, he established a private sector commission that made recommendations on how to eliminate wasteful spending and make government more efficient. In 1978, Howard Jarvis led the effort to pass Proposition 13, which cut property taxes by more than half and helped begin an economic boom in the state. When he became president, Reagan named a similar commission, headed by businessman J. Peter Grace. That commission made 2,478 recommendations to eliminate waste, mismanagement and inefficiency and over three years saved federal taxpayers $424.4 billion.
California's economic problems, created by spendthrift politicians, can be solved. Essential services can be redefined and maintained at reduced cost. That's the challenge for the citizens who proved in the recall election they have had enough of outgoing Gov. Gray Davis' irresponsible spending. Schwarzenegger has been given an opportunity. He should seize the initiative and style himself as a political action hero who looks out for taxpayers first.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.