An inspector general audit has found the Department of Justice is guilty of extravagances such as treating conference attendees to $16 muffins to be washed down with $8 dollar cups of coffee. While Hilton Hotels disputes that this is all the department got for its money, the news here is that no one was really surprised. Most taxpayers have come to the conclusion that the words “government efficiency” are an oxymoron and are more inclined to be shocked when they learn that their money is spent prudently.
Some years ago, during a previous economic downturn, a taxpayer advocate asked the then-governor why the state was funding a nonessential program, the Californian Arts Council, which was costing every Californian about 50 cents annually. “It’s peanuts,” was the governor’s cavalier response.
Some would agree, if these were the only examples of misplaced spending priorities. But there are boxcar loads of these “peanuts” at the federal, state and local level. For example, a recent series of articles by the Los Angeles Times documented the squandering of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars by the Los Angeles Community College District in their $5.7 billion construction program. The Times credited poor planning and shoddy workmanship. In one instance, $39 million was spent on a project that was later abandoned. Many property owners within the LACCD are being charged hundreds of dollars a year to support this waste and mismanagement — more barrels of peanuts.
Then there is Solyndra, a California solar panel manufacturer that has gone belly up, and is under criminal investigation, after receiving more than half-a-billion dollars in federal loan guarantees. This is costing every American about $1.75, the typical cost of a cup of coffee and a tip, unless, of course, you are with the justice department.
Adding insult to injury, California lawmakers provided Solyndra with nearly $25 million in a sales tax exemption, about 70 cents for every state resident. The “green jobs” cheerleaders, including the governor, are strangely silent on this one.
And the beat goes on.
A recently released report by the Bureau of State Audits following up on tips from whistleblowers, further illustrates the problem of government employee abuse and bad management.
A few of the documented instances of “peanuts” paid for by taxpayers:
• An official with the Department of Mental Health claimed he was working while attending golf tournaments, the Golden Globe Awards and a celebrity’s funeral. The auditor said the cost to the state was at least $51,244 in salary for wasted time.
• A psychologist employed by the Department of Corrections cost the department more than $212,000 while using state work time and equipment for his private psychology practice.
• The California Correctional Peace Office Association owes the Department of Corrections $4.9 million for employees who have been paid by the state while being off their jobs to attend union business full time.
Almost every day at every level of government there is a new violation of the taxpayers’ trust — the Sacramento Bee has just reported the city will spend $550,000 on “arena consultants,” about $1.20 for every resident.
These examples illustrate that government operates on a different standard than private businesses. The reason mismanagement and outright larceny are less common in the private sector is that those businesses that tolerate these practices don’t last. To survive, management has an incentive to set high standards of efficiency and this includes making sure employees are providing good value in return for a paycheck.
Government officials, on the other hand, lack this incentive. When things go wrong, they don’t go out of business, they raise taxes.
One issue that seems to unite all Californians, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, is that they do not want to see their tax money wasted. They want to see those dollars stretched as far as possible.
At the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association we have always taken the position that essential government functions should be provided in the most efficient and economical manner possible, even if this means contracting with the private sector to provide some services. Regardless of who is providing the service, it is still the obligation of government to provide strict oversight. While we can argue over whether or not the California Arts Council is worthy of taxpayer funding, incompetence and dishonesty by those receiving a paycheck from taxpayers should not be tolerated under any circumstances.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.