California's Gift of Shame

How IOUs, layoffs, late payments, and other bad news may still save the Golden State


How would you like to be running the California Travel and Tourism Commission right now?

The state is generating an almost constant stream of alarming news. "Essential" services from libraries to police hours to public school teaching staffs are being drastically cut. Cities are going bankrupt. This year's state budget—which currently boasts a $19 billion shortfall—has been delayed for nearly two months, with no agreement in sight between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers. Employees are being furloughed. The state will soon have to start issuing IOUs to cover its obligations. Sacramento announced Monday it would be unable to pay nearly $3 billion in school and county subsidies. Books with titles like Plunder and California Crackup detail how massive financial obligations have rendered the state essentially ungovernable.

In short, California can't buy decent press these days. (And even if it could it wouldn't have any money to do so.)

So why is this good news?

Because in a state that has seen three years of nearly solid financial pain, what is going on right now is pain with a purpose. Outgoing Gov. Schwarzenegger is using fiscal emergency as leverage toward a permanent solution to the public employee pension crisis that has gutted California's budget and hamstrung other states. If he succeeds, the example could point to a solution for the many states that need to get a handle on their public employee commitments.

First, about those IOUs. During a lengthy budget standoff in 2009, the state issued $2.6 billion in IOUs to cover payments to contractors, local governments, and residents in line for tax refunds and college scholarships. This year the budget (which is supposed to have been completed in June) is overdue again, and the differences between Schwarzenegger and the Democrats are even sharper. Last week, Controller John Chiang announced that IOUs would begin coming in late August or early September.

On its face, Chiang's announcement is an attempt to put pressure on the governor. The two are locked in a long-running legal dispute over another budget-standoff tactic: the governor's annual attempts to reduce state workers' pay to Federal minimum wage until the budget is approved—which the union-friendly Chiang claims is impossible due to the state's antiquated COBOL-based payroll system.

But on the IOU issue, Chiang has been fairly consistent in his comments, and the state will in fact need to put off payments (as it did Monday by deferring subsidies to counties and schools) very soon. In any event, the controller's comments probably ended up strengthening the governor's position, which has been refreshingly clear: Schwarzenegger is willing to risk any number of fiscal "black eyes," to court credit downgrades and bad public relations, even to leave office without a budget passed, in order to get concessions from Democrats and their union supporters.

Among these concessions: a 5 percent increase in employee pre-tax contributions toward retirement funds; changes in pension calculations to prevent pension "spiking"; and more honest disclosure of how pensions are funded. Another item that has long been on the governor's wish list is a state "rainy day fund" of $20 billion—close to what Schwarzenegger believes the state would have saved in the absence of runaway public-sector pension payouts during the last decade.

Which brings us to the most important concession of all. Schwarzenegger is seeking to undo Senate Bill 400, a 1999 law that vastly expanded pension payouts to government workers. Passed after a mere five minutes of debate, based on some highly misleading documentation and unrealistic expectations from the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), SB 400 paved the way for a nearly 3,000 percent increase in pension liabilities for the state. 

That debt is eating into other state funding. Since SB 400's passage, expenditures on environmental protection and parks have actually decreased relative to inflation. It's important to remember that Schwarzenegger's struggle is not motivated by small government principle. His problem is that commitments to government workers are preventing the state from spending on other stuff.

But he has been remarkably consistent on this, and may deserve more credit than he has received for raising the national alarm about public sector union power and the crushing burden of paying for government workers' plush retirements.

Viewed through this lens, Schwarzenegger's gambits in the budget battle—alternately described as nonsensical, petulant, and a "gubernatorial ransom note"—begin to make sense.

As of now, state employees are due for furloughs three days a month, which will amount to an average 14 percent pay cut. Critics and the media have questioned whether furloughs save the state's budget as much as advertised, but the savings are a side benefit. The real aim is to put pressure on the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its clients in the state legislature. Union members see actual pay reductions, and eventually, so the thinking goes, they will demand their leaders work with the governor to do something about it. (That Schwarzenegger has negotiated new contracts—which roll back most of SB400—with six unions suggests the tactic works, though the largest union contract negotiations, including SEIU's, are still unfinished.)

An even clearer use of pressure on government workers has been in the governor's (so far unsuccessful) attempts to reduce state employee pay to minimum wage for the duration of the budget delay. While Chiang and previous controllers have used the old-software excuse to avoid implementing this plan, the message still comes through: State workers are not innocent bystanders in the budget impasse. Their excessive compensation is the reason California can no longer manage its budgets.

Schwarzenegger has proven to be a master at stratagems like these, declaring states of fiscal emergency, using apocalyptic rhetoric in places, and courting the credit downgrades that would accompany another IOU experience. (Standard & Poor's already gives the state its fourth-lowest investment-grade rating of A-, and has said it may lower the score if a budget isn't signed by autumn.) Schwarzenegger's genius has been to realize that what looks like catastrophe from the outside can be pretty useful in negotiation.

Whether it helps the state's never small self-image is another matter. But Kathryn Burnside, spokeswoman for the industry-funded California Travel and Tourism Commission, says the trade group has not seen bad news keeping people away from California (though the global recession has cut into tourism). "Certainly, there has been coverage of the state's financial state, and we've seen it in international headlines as well," Burnside says. "But when people come to California, they're coming for the beaches, they're coming for the mountains, for the attractions and the resorts and the sunshine. We're not worried that political news is deterring people from coming to enjoy all the things California has to offer."

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

NEXT: USA out of Tony La Russa

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  1. If he succeeds, the example could point to a solution for the many states that need to get a handle on their public employee commitments.

    You are a fool, Cavanaugh. History will look at you and say, “This man was a fool.”

    1. You gave no reason(s) for your comment, rendering your post next to meaningless.

      Is that what you intended?

      Posting negative stuff is easy and everybody can do it all day.

      Please justify your comments.


      1. You are a fool, Mike. History will look at you and say, “Taco.”

  2. That image is priceless but the lack of alt-text makes me want to hurt myself and others.

  3. The Schwarzenegger approach will only be used by independently wealthy, term-limited governors at the end of their tenures, who have no further political ambitions.

    All the others know that getting into a death match with the pubsec unions and the state power structure is the end of their political career, and of any hopes they might have had for cashing in on their pubserv in the future.

    1. The Schwarzenegger approach will only be used by independently wealthy, term-limited governors at the end of their tenures, who have no further political ambitions.

      What an excellent argument for term limits.

    2. So that means that only independently wealthy (i.e., capitalism-friendly) people will end their terms with favorable results (favorable to the non-union, “average Joe” voter, that is), so that only independently wealthy candidates will be viewed as trustworthy. Hence, more wealthy, pro-capitalism people will be elected…Oh, well, shit! I’m not even convincing myself!

      1. So that means that only independently wealthy (i.e., capitalism-friendly)

        Say what?

      2. Yeah, like Soros.

    3. Exactly. Why is he, only, now getting responsible?

    4. Look at Christie in NJ.

      An anti public union stance is politically popular now and will only become more popular in the future.

  4. I wonder how much the state’s payroll IT employees make per year that they can’t possibly adjust people’s pay. And, seriously? COBOL? Hey California, how about you make a bold move into the late 20th century.

    1. Seriously. Arnold should use that as an argument to pay CA programmers minimum wage, and not just during budget crises.

    2. And, seriously? COBOL? Hey California, how about you make a bold move into the late 20th century.

      They probably can’t make changes precisely because it is in COBOL. Good luck finding a COBOL programmer these days. Back during the crash rewrites to patch the Y2K bug, they had to hire old guys out of retirement to come back and fix legacy code no one had looked at in 20 years.

      It is counter intuitive but the rule of thumb in IT systems is that the more critical a component, the less it is upgraded because upgrades cause disruptions. It is not at all uncommon to find out that the low-criticality components in a system are the cool new toys and the high-criticality components are archaic.

      I would not be surprised at all to find out that the state only has only low-grade COBOL-skill programmers who can do little more than minor maintenance on the COBOL code.

      1. As an IT professional myself, I completely concur.

        Anyone remember the LA Unified School District payroll computer systems fiasco a couple of years ago? They spent something like $100M of taxpayer money on a customized implementation of SAP accounting software on what became a four year effort plus a full year after rollout to address critical bugs. One of the major requirements hurdles they had to contend with was a byzantine pay structure — mandated by the teacher’s union — whereby employees can be paid a different hourly rate for each hour they work, based on some arbitrary (and poorly defined) union job classifications. On top of all this no one within LAUSD had a clue about IT management or implementation. The solution of course was to call in the lawyers and sue the consultants.

        So yeah, CA’s ancient COBOL payroll systems should most definately be replaced. But I don’t trust any person or organization at any level working anywhere within CA state government to even think about it.

        And lest you think I’m picking on CA, none other than the FBI pissed through some obscene amount of taxpayer money as well after 9/11 in an attempt to integrate various ancient IT systems to allow better sharing of intelligence in hopes of thwarting the next 9/11. That ended in tears as well.

        Successful IT systems design requires both concrete and well defined requirements coming in the door, along with an efficient process for amending those requirements along the way. In other words, the very antithesis of a gov’t bureaucracy.

  5. You know how Schwarzenegger and the rest of the Republicans can actually fix this, and win again?

    Speak to the people. Speak in terms they can understand, not political speak.

    Tell them exactly what the problem is. Tell them exactly what the solution is, not cozy political rhetoric to appease everyone so they win the next election.
    Then dive in and change it the way it should be changed, not just to patch it up until it hemorrhages again. The economy will improve because of it, no union thugs will even lose their jobs, and the vast majority of average citizens who actually vote, will see real change they’ve probably wanted forever, and the next election will be a breeze. When Schwarzenegger first ran, he warned everyone on Jay Leno’s show when he first announced he was running, that Gray Davis would try to destroy him. And Davis did try, and failed, because many knew it would be coming. Why doesn’t Schwarzenegger trust the people again, speak to them directly, and just do what’s right?

    1. Dale, do you live in California? “The people” are mostly on some form of subsidy, whether it’s Farm Aid, state contract, General Assistance, UI, SDI, what-have-you. They’re not paying for these pensions so they don’t care about these pensions. They just don’t want their gravy train to dry up into IOUs and they’ll stamp their little feet and march around with signs demanding “Do Something” until they get their way. They don’t understand, they don’t want to understand, as far as they’re concerned, they don’t need to understand.

      1. California is a prime example of why Direct Democracy can only lead to badness.

        “Let’s vote ourselves any and every social service you can think of while simultaneously voting to lower taxes, because we like money AND free shit!”

        1. Nothing is for free, someone has to pay for it. As people slowly exit out of California, the strangulation is becoming evident. High unemployment for years to come. No one can fix it unless they cut government workers and spending. Bell, CA is a prime example of no checks and balances. And so it goes and we go with it.

        2. California is a prime example of why Direct Democracy can only lead to badness.

          The indirect kind isn’t doing so hot, either. I think it’s more just a matter of scale. You still have the same problems. Maybe we need to elect a new Fuhrer to make the trains run on time. (Um…this is a joke.)

      2. This is the real problem Gary S.

        The people are only MOSTLY on subsidy. If they were ALL on it then we would not be dealing with all the PROBLEMS caused by the free market and Schwarzenegger’s libertarian ideas that have ruined California. I only see agencies and programs in your list with U’s and S’s and G’s and I’s. If the whole alphabet was represented, all of your problems would be solved.

        1. Unsuccessful troll is unsuccessful.

        2. “Schwarsenegger’s Libertarian ideas?”

          I’m surprised this clown can spell Libertarian. Maybe he meant Librarian: The Governator’s Librarian ideas.

    2. Dale Writes: Speak to the people. Speak in terms they can understand, not political speak.

      Fine. See my post, below.

      Synopsis: CA Gov. is broken beyond repair so throw it out, split up the territory into 3-5 new states and let the regions start over with a clean slate.

  6. how about you make a bold move into the late 20th century.

  7. This man was a fool

    1. Hey guys would you please ban this spammer?

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  8. COBOL?! I always thought Skynet was written in C++!

  9. “As of now, state employees are due for furloughs three days a month, which will amount to an average 14 percent pay cut.”
    Nope. They get the same unit-pay; they just take time off.

    1. It IS a cut in pay that hopefully saves the state money. However, the state gets fewer hours out of those workers so in theory, gets 14% less work done.

      1. 14% less work from a group that does so little to begin with…I have to deal with Cal Trans on a regular basis, and the absolute waste I see is staggering. 5 or 6 inspectors to do the work of 1 or 2…perhaps we should just lay off 25% of the state workers and demand a full days work from the rest!

        1. My wife works for the Los Angeles School District. Not only is the waste and fraud as bad as it is at Cal Trans but when they lay people off it is always the ones who actually work. The bureaucratic slugs are unaffected.

          1. Betcha your town doesnt have a $600 million dollar school–mine does!

  10. COBOL?!?.

    Gee, do you think they can adjust pay rates upwards? No problem, folks!

  11. I liked the “Talented Mr. Pang” link, the Bloomberg wire photos had a real “You Are There” feel to them

  12. good i agree with your point

  13. good i agree with your point

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  16. I wish I was as optimistic as Tim Cavanaugh. This state has other problems as big as the pension problem. Our legislature is infested with Democrats and our electorate is composed of a herd of idiots so clueless and stupid that a few years ago they voted for a three billion dollar bond issue to fund embryonic stem cell research. We sure showed that Evil George W Bush that time! No one knows, or cares, where the money went. We had two United States Senators who threw 100,000 people out of work to accomodate a couple dozen tiny fish. We’re considering electing for his third term as governor a man who made himself and our state a national joke the last time he was in office and who would provoke a bond default within months of taking office. The only hope is that there’s some harmonic convergence and the permanently stoned majority of the electorate will be out all day worshiping oak trees and forget to vote.

  17. While I agree with Mr. Cavanaugh’s thesis in part, that the high cost of public employee compensation is in part to blame for budget woes in CA, the fact is most of us (I’m a teacher) aren’t getting compensated exceedingly well. During the boom years, politicians not only padded pension plans, they also raided them, taking monies away from them to pay for their pet projects and bring largesse to their constituents. Now, when the state is circling the proverbial drain, the blame falls back to pension funds. If those pension funds had been left alone–and allowed to serve their soul purpose–funding retirements for state employees, then no one could hold them responsible. But since they were raided, now we point the finger and say, “they’re making too much.” Well, allow me to put my cards on the table. I teach high school English and have for 20 years–my salary is a bit over 80K annually. I took a five percent pay cut this year. Since I am also a freelance writer and make a fairly decent living at that, I can pay my bills and raise my family. Without that, I’d be having a tougher time.

    Yes, state employees have cushy gigs–and that needs to be addressed. But don’t forget that the pension was an alternative to making a lot of money in the private sector. I traded earning power for security. At 45, I now see the folly in that and as a conservative, it’s certainly so. But I love teaching, love what I do and I hope I’m pretty good at it. I have a Master’s Degree, I’ve taught at University and Graduate levels and that’s worth something, isn’t it?

    1. mark storer|8.29.10 @ 12:34PM

      He teaches high school English but doesn’t know the difference between “sole” and “soul.” Oy.

    2. I live in California and I can tell you that “a bit over 80K annually” is pretty good money, especially when you don’t even work all year like the rest of us. My wife taught Jr. High until our first child was born and now we live on my salary alone. Yes, it’s our “soul” income, and we have been able to get by easily because we live a lifestyle we can afford rather than living beyond our means and then whining about not being paid enough. Public employees have the easiest gig around, have more than adequate compensation while working and also have good defined benefit retirement plans. Please stop complaining.

    3. You traded earning power for security? At 80k a year, you’re in the top 15% of earners in the nation. You’ll excuse me if the tears fail to flow.

      1. The “I traded earning power for security” whine is something I think must have been in the union newsletter this month. I heard it just yesterday from a relative of mine who works for a state agency. The thing is, as someone with a high school diploma and no consistent work experience, he didn’t really have any earning power at all and state employment was, for him, like winning the lottery. He used to describe it in exactly that way, in fact. But now, after nearly 20 years of union brainwashing, he imagines (like the English-challenged English teacher Mr. Storer), that he turned his back on a multitude of private sector opportunities. If it wasn’t all so tragic, it would almost be funny.

    4. Mr. Storer: “I teach High School English and have for 20 years. My Salary is a bit over 80K annually…… I traded earning power for security.”

      This statement perfectly sums up the bizarre alternate universe that tenured public school teachers live in, and how ignorant they are to how the rest of the workforce lives.

      You think making 80k means you “traded” income for security? No, sir, you have traded nothing. 80k a year for a high school teacher is an insanely high salary. The national average for a 20-year veteran high school teacher is $47k. You make almost DOUBLE that. And this average figure is weighted down by private school teachers, who make significantly less ($41k) than their colleagues in public schools (not to mention have benefit packages that are worth substantially less).

      Your master’s degree also does not entitle you to such an exorbitant salary. The average worker (all industries, public and private) with a master’s degree in this country makes about $51k a year, vs. your $80k. (By the way, those workers actually work 12 months a year – not 9 like you do. Your unit pay is actually the equivalent of $106,000 per year for someone working a full 12 months. Plus you have an insane benefits and retirement package that private sector workers can only dream of).

      So let’s recap, Mr. Storer: You earn twice as much money as a private school teacher with equivalent experience, you get to keep your job and get scheduled raises no matter how good or bad your performance is (unlike private sector workers), and you enjoy health benefits and a retirement package that high-paid white collar private sector workers would salivate over. And perhaps most troubling of all, you are an English teacher with a masters degree and 20 years of experience who apparently does not understand the linguistic difference between the words “soul” and “sole”.

      Why are we supposed to shedding tears for you, exactly?

    5. When you retire you will have paid in a tiny amount of your salary to CalPERS. You will expect a large percentage of your salary as a starting pension. If you started teaching at 25 and retire at the young age of 55 and live 20 more years your pension, with cost of living adjustments, will have far more than doubled the amount you were paid for working. So in fact you are being paid $160,000+ a year, some of that from small businessmen who have NO pension at all. A lot of jobs dont provide any pension and people look forward to old age with fear and doubt. But the point is the State Of California takes in $40 billion dollars and spends $60 billion. This year CalPERS is asking $6 billion to cover their shortfall. That’s one tenth of the budget, or if you prefer 15% of total revenue. That is nuts! Too bad one of your master’s degrees wasnt in arithmetic. If you think that that pension system or your cushy $80k gig will survive to imminent bankruptcy of the state you’re living in a dream world.

    6. Sorry, Storer, your detractors have a point. Teachers at my daughter’s unionized charter school here in Minnesota make far less than you. Your pension would literally appear only in their dreams. It would certainly exceed my union-bargained pension (for which I sincerely thank the union). I don’t even want to think of what the residents of my beloved former home-state get for their 80K.

  18. No one has mentioned the illegal aliens, which by FAIR estimates, cost this state $21 billion per year. That alone would balance the budget.

  19. Good pt Lehigh. I must admit I am surprised. Schwarzenegger is now trying to take on the unions. To be fair though he should have done it as soon as he was governor, you know when he was actually popular. Still, this just one of many instances where unions are finally confronting governors who cannot let them rape the system. My god, even Greigore in WA state is finally fighting them. Dem and GOP governors across the nation are fighting back and if they succeed they may owe it to a GOP controlled Congress in 010. Democrats in Congress unlike governor’s do not have to balance a budget rather just give out more money. Hey it is just the debt, no biggie right?

    1. Exactly – no accountability.
      The trend in the governors’ races seems to favor the GOP, which I interpret as a move towards fiscal responsibility

      1. The trend in the governors’ races seems to favor the GOP, which I interpret as a move towards fiscal responsibility

        Perhaps on the part of the voters.

  20. As a state employee of California,
    I do agree partially, with the article. Pensions for the majority of state workers are not cushy or exorbitant however, those bureaucrats who work for the State of California are bleeding California dry. The City Manager of the City of Bell makes over
    $800,000 per annum, the City Manager of Vernon makes over $1,000,000 per
    year. In addition, when they retire,
    these guys will make like $600,000
    a year in retirement benefits. Something is wrong here. I will make
    $1,000 a month if I am lucky to make
    it to retirement. Fire the fat cat,
    rich, corrupt bureaucrats and California has thousands of these
    guys bleeding California dry! Voters
    are too dumb to vote these bums out
    so, we deserve all this crap!

    1. Part of the problem Ritchie is inherent in your post. You forgot to mention that every one of the thieves in Bell and the real beneficiaries of these huge pensions are all Democrats. The Democrats and their union allies run this state. The Governator and whoever succeeds him will run into the same brick wall because people vote Democrat on things like abortion and the environment and leave them to rob and steal. Its no surprise that the little people get nothing. If you’re stupid enough to believe all the blather from these crooked libs about ‘fairness’ you deserve nothing.

  21. The solution is, IMO, to acknowledge that California State Government is broken beyond repair. It cannot be fixed — so let’s split the state up into 3-5 new states and let each go on their own way.

    Think about it: with several “replacement” states there is no way all of the residents of California could simultaneously be subject to the corruption, stupidity, and quack politics that we all suffer today. It is only because the present state is so large that we all get screwed at the same time.

    What does LA have in common with San Francisco? Chico with San Jose? Bakersfield and Eureka? Not much really, except that ancient Spanish colonially boundaries lumped these locations together. Why would anyone think these 16th century boundaries would remain useful in the 21st century?

    If states are truly the laboratories of a Federal system, then California should be repealed and renewed. It couldn’t be worse than what we’ve got. Besides, I like the idea of San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, and San Mateo becoming a new mini-state — call it WONDERLAND — where they’d actually have to manage the consequences of their own choices w/o help from the rest of us.

    1. 3 state proposal:
      Northern CA: those counties north of the Sacramento River between the Golden Gate and the city of Sacramento, plus the counties where Sacramento and Roseville are located, plus El Dorado and Alpine.

      Southern CA: Ventura, the south half of Kern (following the Techachippi ridge line), Inyo, Mono, and all other counties to the Mexican boarder.

      Central CA: The rest.

      1. “Southern CA: ….. and all other counties to the Mexican border.”

        We’ll also take Baja.

  22. As a former COBOL programmer, I cannot buy the argument: “Its written in COBOL, it can’t be changed.”. Nonsense! COBOL was designed to be flexible to changing business parameters (i.e., pay scales, tax percentages, etc. etc.). A lame excuse in my view.

    p.s.: If California needs help rewriting the code; I am sure that many of my fellow retired COBOL programmers would be glad to help!

  23. Is it any wonder that the states that are in trouble are generally run by Democrat controlled legisltures. Christy of NJ and Arnold have taken the best action that all other states should d. Cut their budget and live within their means. Yes there will be pain but perhaps lower business taxes will create jobs that will generate income and taxes revenues. If states want to live within their means, they need to get rid of the Dem legislatures that keep taxing and increasing the big govt payrolls. Average salary for a govt workers is 120k, much more than a private worker.

  24. States need to convert pensions to employee participation plans, and govt workers need to pay for inurance. Retirement needs to be put off to 65. This is the real world and govt employees add nothing to the GDP.

  25. The GOP is fiscally responsible? Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

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  27. steve,
    the gop is less fiscally irresponsible.
    not because of any great understanding or honesty, but because they have fewer grandiose plans.
    still, its better than the donkeys.

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  29. There is only one solution for the problems government has foisted upon us and it comes at the end of a rope.

    1. Bungee jumping?

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