Thursday, December 3, 2009

What's Wrong with California

What's wrong with California? I've collected a few articles that highlight the reasons why California is in such serious trouble. A couple of friends have already moved away, I'm thinking of moving myself. If you don't understand what is going on with California, the articles below will reveal the hellhole I call home.

City Journal says,

When I recently appeared on Glenn Beck’s TV show to discuss California’s dreadful fiscal situation, I mentioned that in Orange County, where I had been a columnist for the Orange County Register, the average pay and benefits package for firefighters was $175,000 per year. After the show, I heard from viewers who couldn’t believe the figure, but it’s true. Firefighters, like all public-safety officials in California, also receive a gold-plated retirement plan: a defined-benefit annual pension that offers 90 percent or more of the worker’s final year’s pay, guaranteed for the rest of his life (and the life of his spouse).

Government employees use various scams to boost their already generous benefits, which include fully paid health care and cost-of-living adjustments. The Sacramento Bee coined the term “chief’s disease,” for example, to refer to the 82 percent (in 2002) of chief’s-level employees at the California Highway Patrol who discovered a disabling injury about one year before retiring. That provides an extra year off work, with pay, and shields 50 percent of their final retirement pay from taxes. Most of these disabilities stem from back pain, knee pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and the like—not from taking bullets from bad guys. The disability numbers soared after CHP disbanded its fraud unit.

From the Sac Bee

Just days before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators finalized a water package, including an $11.1 billion bond issue, state Treasurer Bill Lockyer warned them not to do it.

California is already deeply in debt, Lockyer warned, has huge budget deficits and can't afford another big bond issue.

"The days of blithely heaping more and more debt burden on the general fund are over – at least they should be," Lockyer said.

The earmark-laden bond issue, the package's single most controversial element, raises an interesting question: Just how deeply in debt are our state and local governments?

The answer: No one knows for certain, since debt is scattered through myriad agencies in many forms, but well over a half-trillion dollars is a fair estimate.

Lockyer's warning pertained to the state's "general obligation debt," which currently stands at $59 billion, and there are an additional $50-plus billion in general obligation bonds that have not yet been sold. The biggest chunks of debt, however, are the unfunded obligations for pensions and health care of retired public employees.

The latest annual pension report from the state controller covers 2006, when the unfunded liability was $64 billion. But since then, state and local pension funds have lost at least $150 billion on investments, so a reasonable estimate of today's unfunded liability is $200-plus billion. A state commission, meanwhile, says the state-local liability for retiree health care is about $100 billion.

No one keeps complete data on local government general obligation debt, but it appears to be roughly the same as the state's, perhaps $50 billion, plus several billion dollars in debt incurred by local redevelopment agencies.

There are tens of billions in specialized state debt, such as veteran home loan bonds, "securitization" of tobacco lawsuit proceeds, and budget deficit bonds.

The interest that must be paid on all that state and local debt is probably an additional $100 billion, so we're already talking about well over $500 billion.

Forbes weighs in,

Right now California's economy is moribund, and the prospects for a quick turnaround are not good. Unable to pay its bills, the state is issuing IOUs; its once strong credit rating has collapsed. The state that once boasted the seventh-largest gross domestic product in the world is looking less like a celebrated global innovator and more like a fiscal basket case along the lines of Argentina or Latvia.

It took some amazing incompetence to toss this best-endowed of places down into the dustbin of history. Yet conventional wisdom views the crisis largely as a legacy of Proposition 13, which in effect capped only taxes.

This lets too many malefactors off the hook. I covered the Proposition 13 campaign for the Washington Post and examined its aftermath up close. It passed because California was running huge surpluses at the time, even as soaring property taxes were driving people from their homes.

Admittedly it was a crude instrument, but by limiting those property taxes Proposition 13 managed to save people's houses. To the surprise of many prognosticators, the state government did not go out of business. It has continued to expand faster than either its income or population. Between 2003 and 2007, spending grew 31%, compared with a 5% population increase. Today the overall tax burden as percent of state income, according to the Tax Foundation, has risen to the sixth-highest in the nation.

The media and political pundits refuse to see this gap between the state's budget and its ability to pay as an essential issue. It is. (This is not to say structural reform is not needed. I would support, for example, reforming some of the unintended ill-effects of Proposition 13 that weakened local government and left control of the budget to Sacramento.)

But the fundamental problem remains. California's economy--once wondrously diverse with aerospace, high-tech, agriculture and international trade--has run aground. Burdened by taxes and ever-growing regulation, the state is routinely rated by executives as having among the worst business climates in the nation. No surprise, then, that California's jobs engine has sputtered, and it may be heading toward 15% unemployment.

So if we are to assign blame, let's not start with the poor, old anti-tax activist Howard Jarvis (who helped pass Proposition 13 and passed away over 20 years ago), but with the bigger culprits behind California's fall. Here are five contenders:

continue reading

National Affairs writes,

It would be difficult to overstate the magnitude of California's troubles. In economic terms, the state is simply broke: issuing IOUs as payments for goods and services, begging the federal government to back state debt (a request the Obama administration denied), and watching its credit rating plummet. To address a $42 billion shortfall in February of this year, the legislature enacted a package that included the largest state tax increases in American history, leaving California with the highest sales and personal income-tax rates in the country (though Hawaii would supplant its lead in the latter category in May). When another $26 billion shortfall emerged by summer, lawmakers — chastened by the 2-1 rejection of further tax hikes in a May 19 special election — agreed on another package that featured more than $16 billion in spending reductions, including deep cuts to education, health, and social services.

That's not even the worst of it. For all of the high drama that has accompanied 2009's fiscal travails (a stunning populist backlash against high taxes, widespread public-employee protests over spending cuts), California's lawmakers let the crisis go to waste — failing to use the moment to improve the state's financial outlook. As the San Diego Union-Tribune's John Marelius noted:

[California projects] a deficit of between $7 billion and $8 billion for the next budget cycle. Plus, federal stimulus money, $5 billion of which was used to backfill education cuts this year, may not be available. And about the time the next governor takes office, $16 billion in temporary tax increases that were included in [the] February budget deal will expire.

As if that weren't apocalyptic enough, California's short-term ­financial difficulties pale in comparison to its long-term obligations. In the most recent fiscal year, the California Public Employees' Retirement System and the California State Teachers' Retirement System, the state's two largest pension plans, lost a combined total of nearly $100 ­billion — about a quarter of their value — in the market downturn. If legislators thought tackling a $60 billion deficit was trying, they are sure to love the challenge of making good on California's fixed pension obligations — which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has estimated are $300 billion in the red.

And fiscal troubles are just the tip of the iceberg. California's percentage of adults without at least a high-school education is the second-highest in the nation (and the fact that 72% of those without diplomas are immigrants only fuels the state's growing problem of social stratification). The Commonwealth Fund has ranked the quality of California's health care lowest of the 50 states. The state has the highest rate of criminal recidivism in the country. It has six of the ten worst cities in the country in air pollution. Los Angeles and San Francisco have some of the most congested roads in the nation, which costs the state's employers billions in lost productivity each year. The state is seriously discussing mandatory water rationing, and has in recent years experienced severe disruptions of its electricity supply. Unemployment is over 11%, and a recent survey of corporate CEOs ranked California the worst state in the country in which to do business. It is losing native-born ­citizens faster than any other state.

Finally, the New York Times offers another clue as to why California is imploding,

Still, what California does often takes on outsized significance because the state’s welfare rolls are outsized. In July, while looking for budget cuts, Mr. Schwarzenegger complained that California had 12 percent of the nation’s population but 30 percent of the people on welfare.

As elsewhere, California’s welfare rolls plummeted after the 1996 national overhaul of welfare, from 921,000 families in 1995 to 466,000 families in 2008, but they did not fall as much as in most states. In the recession, rolls have climbed and are projected to reach 557,000 families in 2010, or about 1.3 million individuals.

Parents with special hardships or the youngest babies have always been exempt from work requirements in California, but now two large groups making up one-third or more of all applicants can also opt out: single parents with a child age 1 to 2, or those with two children under 6.

Ms. Zendejas, 20, is the mother of two boys under 6. She has worked part time as a supermarket cashier, but under the old work-to-welfare rules she was supposed to spend an additional 15 hours in vocational training or searching for a more stable job, an effort that she found too hard to juggle, resulting in a financial penalty.

Now she needs to do none of that to get her check, and the penalty of more than $120 a month is ending, too. “It’s a relief,” she said.

The shit is hitting the fan. It won't be long now until the final confrontation between the various leeches who are sucking Californians dry and the taxpayers who have clearly reached their limits. After a record tax increase and already with the nation's highest sales taxes and second highest income taxes, the budget deficit will again be in the tens of billions. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Quoting ..."It took some amazing incompetence to toss this best-endowed of places down into the dustbin of history."

Nonsense. "incompetence" suggests not know of the consequences of the actions (or lack thereof) taken.

The root cause of California's woes is excessive pay, pensions, and benefits (both while employeed and in retirement).

The enormous GREED of Civil Servants, their mouthpiece unions, and their enabling politicians is the cause of California's woes .... and ALL of them knew just what they doing.

Pensions need to be reduced for CURRENT, not just NEW employees.

Retiree healthcare must be eliminated for all those not ALREADY eligible to retire, with the latter group paying AT LEAST 50% of each year's annual cost.

Anne O'Niemahce said...

When I was a youngster being taught by my folks to save money, I was taught the "miracle of compound interest." When you see than graphed, you want to develop a saving habit.

The same miracle applies to debt. But public officials never seem to learn the lesson. Or they know the lesson all too well and hope to either make a power grab from the mess or leave office before anyone notices.

Duke said...

Born and raised in California I recently moved my business and myself to Nevada for all the reasons cited in the articles above. There is too much uncertainty in California in regards to taxes, expenses, overcrowding and resources.

With the exception of the weather Nevada offers everything California has to offer. Why should I pay for an incompetent State government, gold plated pensions for Government workers and benefits for those who are neither productive nor deserving.

Now I can content myself with the occasional visit. Good Luck California.

George said...


Anonymous said...

I'm a 4th generation native of the central coast whose great grandparents moved down here after their Irish gold rush dreams ended in 1868. I'm currently compiling material for an illustrated book on all the bureaucratic changes in those 140 years.

It's unbelievable that all the public employee unions were able to obtain these unsustainable retirement benefits. Even our state controller says "we" gave it to them and can't take away these pensions.

I'll reach into radio history and take on the role of "Tonto" who when surrounded by hostile indians said to the Lone Ranger, "What do you mean by WE white man?"