Whacking boards and commissions: The devil is in the details

California must now muddle through without an Abalone Advisory Committee.

And an Anti-Terrorism Information Center, Rural Health Policy Council and Human Resources Modernization project.

These are four of the more than 50 boards, commissions, task forces, advisory councils, offices, programs and departments Gov. Jerry Brown has either axed or consolidated in the last two budgets. A two-part list of the bodies is available here and here.

Several of the larger consolidations and eliminations come from Brown’s reorganization plan, which lessens the number of state agencies from 12 to 10. The plan won legislative approval July 2 but won’t take effect until July 1, 2013.

Combined, the savings from these actions represents some $10 million — a little less than 0.00008 of the $131 billion spending plan the Democratic governor signed June 27.

That would represent something even tinier than budget dust. Budget electrons, perhaps.

“While the state will realize savings from these proposals, that wasn’t the sole reason for the proposal,” H. D. Palmer, spokesman for Brown’s Department of Finance, told Capitol Weekly.

“The aim was — and is — to make state government more efficient, to eliminate duplication and to improve the delivery of services to Californians.”

Shrinking the size of state government – no matter how infinitesimally – also offers taxpayers an easy-to-grasp example of fiscal restraint.

A timely message since Brown and his Democratic allies in the Legislature are banking on voter approval in November of a seven-year increase in state income taxes and a four-year one-quarter cent boost in the sales tax that will yield $5.6 billion during the current fiscal year. And that means avoiding $5.6 billion in spending cuts that will fall primarily on public schools.

“Before the governor can win an initiative campaign, he has to win a credibility campaign,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

“The governor understands that if he wants to pass his ballot initiative he has to convince voters that state government can be trusted with their tax dollars.”

“That’s what pension reform is about. That’s what welfare reform is about. And that’s what this is about,” Schnur said.

Eliminating “over 50 boards, commission, task forces, offices and departments” is one of the bullets on page 9 of Brown’s summary of the budget for the fiscal year, which began July 1.

On the same page, Brown highlights reducing grants to welfare recipients to below 1987 levels, lowering aid to the low-income aged, blind and disabled to 1983 levels, cutting general fund support for public universities by 25 percent and reducing the state workforce by 30,000 positions.

“The administration has focused on shrinking state government and making it more efficient. These changes will help the state keep its budget balanced for the long term,” Brown says in the budget summary.

Of Brown’s recently ratified reorganization plan, Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor told lawmakers in May, it really didn’t do all that much.

“You’re not eliminating functions here. You’re not drastically changing the functions either. You’re bringing agencies outside the agency structure and putting them under the agency structure or moving them to other agencies. The stakes are not dramatically high,” Taylor told a special committee convened to examine Brown’s proposal.

The comedian George Carlin said he left “symbols for the symbol-minded” but Brown, over his more than four decades in politics, has recognized their value.

Catch phrases from Brown’s first turn in the Capitol’s corner office like “Less is More” and “Small is Beautiful” may have helped earn him his “Governor Moonbeam” sobriquet but driving the Blue Plymouth and eschewing a governor’s mansion for a spartan mattress-on-the-floor apartment vividly reinforced his message of austerity.

It’s a message he still trumpets today – 30 years after first leaving the governor’s office. 

Even before taking office in January 2011, Brown announced a cut in the $18 million budget of the governor’s office of 25 percent. The $4.5 million reduction had little budget impact but earned plenty of media attention.

Within a week of taking office, Brown’s first executive order told state agencies to turn in half of the 96,000 cell phones issued to state employees by June 1, 2011.

On June 8, Brown said 67,117 phones were covered by the order— rather than the original 96,000 – and that 29,398 had been eliminated. Reducing the 67,117 by 50 percent to 33,559 would save $13 million, Brown estimated.

Before January 2011 was over, Brown’s second executive order called for halving the 11,000 passenger cars and trucks in the state fleet and the 4,500 home storage permits issued to workers.

On July 7, 2011 Brown announced that the number of state vehicles had been cut by 3,800, a 32 percent reduction saving $11.4 million.  Approximately 2,000 home storage permits were revoked.

As Schnur points out, Brown has gotten more publicity from ratcheting down the number of state-issued cars and cell phones than reducing spending this year alone by more than $1.2 billion for Medi-Cal, the state’s health program that serves 7.4 million low-income Californians.

Several of the state entities made extinct on Brown list of 50 yield far less – in some cases, nonexistent – savings than Brown’s actions on state cars and cell phones.

The Abalone Advisory Committee, for example, was a nine-member board that met once a year to offer ideas to the Department of Fish and Game.  Members received no compensation.

Mike Taugher, a Fish & Game spokesman, said two other bodies nixed by Brown – the State Interagency Oil Spill Committee and the State Interagency Oil Spill Committee Review Subcommittee – “have not been active for some time.”

Similarly, the Electronic Funds Transfer Task Force, charged with finding a better way of electronically transferring state payroll funds, is still on the books but its work was completed with an overhaul of the payroll system in 2008.

Now it’s off the books.

“People are always going to be angry and skeptical about government. We want people to know we’re getting things done,” Senate President Pro tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, told Capitol Weekly.

“Even these smaller pieces are part of achieving that goal.”

The Department of Toxic Substances Controls lost six programs to Brown’s budgets. Among them are the Abandoned Site Assessment Program and the Expedited Remedial Action Program, created in 1994 to find alternative ways to clean up hazardous waste sites.

Also included on Brown’s good-bye list is the Division of Labor Standards within the Department of industrial Relations.

Then division compiles statistics and conducts research on labor conditions in the state.

Its work will continue, the division is simply being consolidated within the department’s Division of Labor Standards
Enforcement and Division of Occupational Safety, according to Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the department.

The now defunct California Anti-Terrorism Information Center was formed after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center to create a central database local law enforcement agencies could use to get information about terrorist threats around the state.

It was located within the state Department of Justice’s Division of Law Enforcement which Brown, the former Attorney General, cut by $71 million in last year’s budget.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger created the nation’s first cabinet secretary for volunteerism in 2008. Brown ended one of that California Volunteers agency’s programs by eliminating the Governor’s Mentoring Partnership, which helped link persons wanting to be a mentor with groups that needed one.

“There are other community programs that provide similar services,” Brown said in his January budget plan.

Most of the consolidations come from Brown’s reorganization plan. The current Department of Financial institutions and the Department of Corporations are merged into the Department of Business Oversight, staring July 1, 2013.

The Fair Employment and Housing Commission is eliminated but its functions moved into the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

Brown also called for elimination of the Commission on the Status of Women but Democratic lawmakers balked.

They did insist on some “reforms,” however.

Among them, the name is being changed to the Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. It will now be “focusing its studies and advocacy on issues such as gender equity in education and business and women veterans and their families.”

The commission’s annual budget is $267,000. 

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