Nine years ago, California Democrat Gray Davis became the first U.S. governor in 82 years to be recalled by voters. The state’s 20 million taxpayers still bear the cost of his four years and 10 months on the job.
Davis escalated salaries and benefits for 164,000 state workers, including a 34 percent raise for prison guards, the first of a series of steps in which he and successors saddled California with a legacy of dysfunction. Today, the state’s highest-paid employees make far more than comparable workers elsewhere in almost all job and wage categories, from public safety to health care, base pay to overtime.
Payroll data compiled by Bloomberg on 1.4 million public employees in the 12 most-populous states show that California has set a pattern of lax management, inefficient operations and out-of-control costs. From coast to coast, states are cutting funding for schools, public safety and the poor as they struggle with fallout left by politicians who made pay-and-pension promises that taxpayers couldn’t afford.
“It was completely avoidable,” said David Crane, a public-policy lecturer at Stanford University.
“All it took was for political leaders to think more about the general population and the future, rather than their political futures,” said Crane, a Democrat who worked as an economic adviser to former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. “Citizens should be mad as hell, and they shouldn’t take it anymore.”
Across the U.S., such compensation policies have contributed to state budget shortfalls of $500 billion in the past four years and prompted some governors, including Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin, to strip most government employees of collective-bargaining rights and take other steps to limit payroll spending.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown hasn’t curbed overtime expenses that lead the 12 largest states or limited payments for accumulated vacation time that allowed one employee to collect $609,000 at retirement in 2011. The 74-year-old Democrat has continued requiring workers to take an unpaid day off each month, which could burden the state with new costs in the future.
Last year, Brown waived a cap on accrued leave for prison guards while granting them additional paid days off. California’s liability for the unused leave of its state workers has more than doubled in eight years, to $3.9 billion in 2011, from $1.4 billion in 2003, according to the state’s annual financial reports.