Matthew Keys; Creative Commons via Flickr
No to California’s public officials: Raising the pay of government workers is not the biggest challenge facing California

No to California’s public officials: Raising the pay of government workers is not the biggest challenge facing California

In 1988, with the California economy churning out record revenue, state Democratic lawmakers and their progressive allies had interesting, constructive options. They could fund the water storage projects that experts said a fast-growing state badly needed. They could fix the frayed infrastructure cited in state audits covering dozens of agencies. They could even upgrade the outdated, balky computer system the state used to pay government employees –  incredibly, in the high-tech Golden State, the system relied on COBOL, a creaky, balky 29-year-old programming language that had long since been abandoned by most of the private sector.

Instead, progressives devoted themself to adopting Proposition 98, arguably the most important modern initiative outside of the landmark Proposition 13 in 1978. Prop. 98 was complex but amounted to making a permanent commitment that at least 40 percent of the state’s general fund would fund K-14 programs. If these new funds went to boost teacher pay and benefits rather than capital improvements, well, that was up to local school boards — who were themselves largely run by teachers unions themselves. 

Eleven years later, in 1999, with the California economy again churning out record revenue, state Democratic lawmakers and their progressive allies had interesting, constructive options. They could consider the measures mentioned above. Or they could figure out a way to use the windfall to boost government employee compensation. The Legislature famously chose the latter, enacting SB 400, which provided a shocking retroactive 50 percent pension boost to most state workers.

In 2013, with the California economy bouncing back from the Great Recession, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers said it was time to use state revenue gains to help the 6 million students who were English-language learners, who lived in impoverished households or were foster students. They enacted the Local Control Funding Formula, which changed state school funding rules to ensure that districts with high percentages of struggling students got a big influx of money.

Brown insisted that the additional funds would be closely monitored to ensure that the extra dollars were directly helping these students. But in January 2015, the Legislative Analyst’s Office said its survey of 50 school districts — including the state’s 10 largest — showed not a single one was properly tracking LCFF funds. 

Did the auditor’s finding have any impact on government officials? It did not. In June of that year, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson issued a memo saying LCFF funding could be used for teachers’ raises.

Are you sensing a pattern?

Now comes the latest example of California politicians who have long complained about not having enough money to fix roads or build homeless shelters coming upon a windfall — then quickly concluding that what most needed to be addressed was employee compensation. 

Earlier this month, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to use $76 million in emergency federal pandemic aid as “hero pay” for the county’s 22,000 employees. Full-time workers will get bonuses of $2,500. Additionally, 27,000 in-home support services workers who help adults over 65 years old will be given $500.

When speakers at a board meeting made the obvious point that distinctions should be made between first responders and the many bureaucrats who have safely worked from home since March 2020, County Executive Jeffrey V. Smith said that was not possible.

“We felt strongly that everyone in the county employed actually participated vigorously to the greatest extent possible in providing a response to the pandemic,” Smith said. “And therefore, we didn’t feel administratively that we could pick a group or a particular job or a particular activity that was more deserving of a larger amount of money than any other [person].”

If you are groaning, know that you are not alone. 

County supervisors did make one very minor concession. They decided not to give the bonus to Smith or to themselves.

The obvious point needs to be made: This is not how compensation decisions are made in the private sector, where employee turnover is much higher than in the public sector. Why? Because overall job satisfaction is much lower for those without pensions and union-backed job security. Improving compensation for public employees who are unlikely to quit doesn’t make sense from a management — or taxpayer — perspective.

This dynamic is ignored by those who run California. What is the main goal of most elected Democrats and top administrators? It’s impossible to say it’s providing the best government bang for the buck. Instead, it’s keeping the special interests happy — starting with the public employee unions who bankroll so many candidates.

It’s hard to find a better example than what we just witnessed in Santa Clara County. I could offer Kern County, where supervisors voted unanimously to spend their federal COVID-19 funds to pay government workers $22.2 million in “hero pay.” Or the school districts which ordered bonuses paid to teachers, with one district floating the notion that teachers could use the cash for a trip to Hawaii. Then there are the California city and county officials who went further, voting to force employers to boost the pay of “heroes” in agriculture, grocery stores, and restaurants. Needless to say, businesses that complied with those directives passed along the additional cost to consumers – people who are also struggling to make it. 

Meantime, COBOL, the computer programming language invented in 1959 that was considered a joke decades ago, is still used to operate state payrolls. It recently turned 62 years old, becoming eligible for Social Security. The time for COBOL’s graceful exit has never been better.

What? You’re not feeling whimsical?

Sorry. To keep my sanity, I often recall this one-liner from 18-century English author Horace Walpole: “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”

Horace was on to something.


Chris Reed is a contributing editor to California Policy Center, and an editorial writer and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @calwhine.

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