California Circles The Drain
By Roger Hedgecock
The government of the once “Golden State” is a lead pipe cinch to lurch into insolvency any month now. State government is an estimated $19 billion in the hole. Revenues are down and spending is up. The state continues to hire during a “hiring freeze.” To solve the crisis, the Democrat majority in the Legislature demands higher taxes on top of already high taxes, which are driving jobs and businesses out of the state. To use the current word for this state of affairs — the situation is “untenable.”
Californians know it too. The most recent Field Poll has 93 percent of California voters agreeing that these are bad economic times, with only 26 percent expecting the state’s economy to improve in 2011.
The media is peppered with grim stories of government fraud, waste and abuse. The daily Lindsey Lohan story provides only partial diversion. Voters avidly follow every word uttered by Snooki both on and off “Jersey Shore.” Anything is better than stories which detail the utter corruption and incompetence of California government.
Stories like this one.
The Los Angeles Times reports that over $69 million in welfare paid out in debit cards to destitute Californians to keep a roof over their head and clothes on their back has turned up in Las Vegas, Hawaii and on Caribbean cruise ships. Some months ago, in another report, the cards were turning up at Indian casinos in California. The cards could be programmed to deny use at these places, but are not.
Corruption and incompetence is not confined to state government. Consider the “prevailing wage” for public servants in the city of Bell. The city manager received almost $800,000 per year — nearly twice the salary of the president of the United States. In a city of 40,000 people.
The ex-police chief of Bell claimed a disability retirement due to a back injury, also citing pre-existing injuries to his knee and neck. While waiting on a decision on his case, the chief took spinning classes, ran a 5K race and disclosed that he enjoyed snow skiing and had participated in the 120-mile Baker to Las Vegas run. The chief made $437,000 per year in Bell and was looking forward to an over $400,000 annual retirement payment, half of that tax free in the form of the disability payment.
These revelations were blood in the water to political sharks circling for election advantage. Bell officials, past and present, have been sued by state Attorney General Jerry Brown to renew his voter appeal during his campaign to become governor again.
The latest revelations of bloated salaries and pensions involves the city of San Diego.After digging by Councilman Carl DeMaio, it was revealed that a San Diego city librarian retired from her $160,000 job with an annual retirement payment starting at over $227,000 plus full medical. A three-star general in the Army gets around $150,000 per year in retirement.
Members of the San Diego City Council are vested in their pension benefits from minute one of their “service.” For each year, or part of a year, “served,” they receive 3.5 percent of their annual salary for life beginning immediately after they leave the council. DeMaio has refused a pension. But others have received outrageous benefits.
Ex-San Diego Councilman Ralph Inzunza resigned at age 31 just short of the end of his four-year term of office after a scandal. He immediately began receiving $21,058 every year for the rest of his life. The amount will increase every year according to a Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) formula.
Former Councilman Michael Zucchet served less than three years of his four-year term before he resigned at age 35 as a result of a scandal. He immediately began to receive $14,764 per year, which he will also receive every year, adjusted for the COLA.
Councilwoman Donna Frye has served eight years (two terms is the limit) and legally “purchased” five additional years for 15 percent of the actual cost of each additional year for a total of 13 years of “service.” She will immediately receive about $40,000 every year for the rest of her life, adjusted upward every year by the COLA.
The 10 most highly paid employees who retired from the city of San Diego last year will cost the pension fund $61 million over their projected life spans.
The cost of these bloated pension benefits will require a $240 million contribution from the city’s budget this year, up from $34 million just seven years ago. As a result, city services have been cut back and the voters are livid.
The current City Council reached the predictable conclusion on how to solve this crisis. They refused to cut back their pension benefits. Instead, they put Proposition D on the ballot seeking voter approval for a “temporary” five year sales tax increase of one half of one percent — a tax which they say will yield over $100 million a year to restore city services. No surprise that Frye signed the ballot argument in favor of Proposition D
California’s aging system of roads and bridges is poorly maintained; too many of the public schools are among the worst in the nation; 37 million residents include 4-5 million illegals. The state ranks near last in business friendly rankings and is one of the highest taxed states. The last car manufacturing plant in California closed last year; the last aircraft manufacturing plant closes next year; the chemical plants are gone; ditto the furniture makers and a host of other employers.
The public sector has become a parasite that is consuming the host — the people of this once great state.
Californians wonder if anything can be done to reverse the decline — or if anyone is even willing to try.
Roger Hedgecock is a former mayor of San Diego and is a nationally-syndicated radio talk show host. Visit rogerhedgecock.com.