One of the annoying anomalies about government services in California is that while we carry one of the nation’s highest state and local tax burdens – over 10 percent of personal income – we consistently rank very low in what those many billions of tax dollars provide.
That disconnect is very evident in public education, the single biggest consumer of tax dollars as well as the most popular thing that governments support.
Despite our high taxes, California consistently ranks in the lower quadrant of per-pupil spending, and much of that money has been diverted into an almost impenetrable thicket of specialized pots.
Meanwhile, the outcomes, as measured by academic tests and high school graduation rates, range from poor to mediocre.
Gov. Jerry Brown says we’d get more bang for our school bucks by eliminating most of those special pots and simplifying how money is distributed, with more going to districts with large numbers of poor or “English learner” students.
Whether that happens, and whether it would improve outcomes, are still very much unknown.
If schools are the most obvious of California’s public services, highways are a close second. There, too, there seems to be a disconnect between what taxpayers are paying and what’s happening where the rubber meets the road.
A new statistical compilation by retired University of North Carolina professor David Hartgen for the Reason Foundation finds that while California ranks very high, vis-à-vis other states, in per-mile spending on state highways, it consistently ranks at or near the bottom in official measures of pavement condition, congestion and other indices. It ranks dead last in improving seven measures of highway adequacy between 1989 and 2008.
Meanwhile, state transportation officials plan to spend $5.6 million on a party for opening a new Bay Bridge section – but what’s to celebrate? The project took 24 years and cost several times the original estimate.
We spend more on inmate health care, proportionately, than Texas spends on its entire prison system – yet California is under federal court supervision.
Finally, there’s the string of failed projects to incorporate technology into public services.
Scarcely a month passes without some new and very expensive debacle in implementing technology projects, inevitably leading to cancellation of contracts and recriminations – and sometimes lawsuits – pitting state officials against the hardware and software vendors they chose.
It’s downright embarrassing – or should be – that the world capital of technological innovation finds it so difficult to employ the devices and programs that its technical whizzes peddle to the rest of the world.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never has so much been spent to achieve so little.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him at [email protected]