Providing Hope in a Tax-Happy State

People ask why we bother to fight government waste and the misuse of taxpayer dollars. It seems that the triple threat of out-of-control government spending tax increases and government debt — in all its myriad forms — are so daunting that it is scarcely worth the effort.

In many ways our work is like fighting an invasion of ants in the kitchen. With diligence you can kill hundreds of them yet hundreds still remain. You battle the ants knowing that you won’t destroy all the ants in one fell swoop but every one you get reduces the threat to your health and food supply.

The same basic principle holds true as we jointly released our fifth annual California Piglet Book last week. This 35-page booklet carefully scrutinizes dozens of examples of waste fraud and abuse that occurred in California state and local government. By increasing transparency and continuing to shine a spotlight on the twisted maze of government bureaucracy we can end some abuses and build pressure for reforms that will guarantee taxpayer dollars will be better spent in the future.

In Los Angeles for instance the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) has spent $16 million in ratepayer money to finance a yet-to-be open museum the Center for Water Education in Hemet which tells "the story of water" in Southern California. What’s worse is that the MWD asked its board of directors to authorize $4 million to save the project from bankruptcy. After giving the museum $4.67 million the board followed up that exorbitant action with a proposal to increase wholesale water rates by $30 an acre-foot. If approved ratepayers would see an increase of between 70 cents to $1.25 in their monthly bills. Perhaps if ratepayer dollars had not gone to fund a museum such an increase would not have been necessary.

Another example features six automatic toilets costing $300000 each in Los Angeles that don’t work. At a price equal to a small downtown condo the toilets offer instructions in six different languages. However 2-1/2 years after the first of them arrived in the city only one of them actually works. Clearly maintenance and upkeep needs to occur; however even this is made difficult by the fact that three different city departments are needed to keep the toilets functioning. The result is a classic case of government working against itself rather than assisting citizens.

And an example that might be amusing if the laugh were not at taxpayers’ expense Shasta County is offering ‘pet care benefits’ to its employees as part of their pension package. According to the Redding Record-Searchlight benefits include "unlimited consulting and referrals on veterinarians pet replacement training and discipline and grooming. The worker gets up to two free visits for pet-loss counseling or meetings with a specialist dealing with pet psychology including behavioral problems and discipline."

Cumulatively we estimate that the examples of abuse in the 2007 Piglet Book total at least $3 billion dollars. Considering that the Legislative Analyst’s Office released a report last week detailing a $10 billion budget revenue shortfall this profound waste of taxpayer dollars is very disturbing.

Steps can be taken today to move California in the direction of fiscal responsibility and the 2007 Piglet Book can serve as a gentle shove toward that goal. Unless we start taking action now to reduce spend and get more value from the dollars taxpayers already generously provide the results could be catastrophic.

Analysis by the Tax Foundation shows that the numbers are already mounting against taxpayers. In 2007 California’s state and local tax burden was 11.5 percent of income the highest level since 1977. This amount represents a full percentage point increase over former Governor Gray Davis’s last year in office in 2003. Clearly our state government is living beyond our means.

But there is hope. Voters last year rejected all five tax increases on the ballot and there was only one substantial threat against either Propositions 13 or 218 and that measure appears to have stalled in the State Senate. Although progress may be slow if the Piglet Book goads politicians and bureaucrats to make incremental improvements in the way they handle and spend public funds then all California taxpayers will be the better for it.

The 2007 Piglet Book can be downloaded here or on the CAGW website..

Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Tom Schatz is the President of Citizens Against Government Waste.