Bloomberg Takes Aim at the Fiscal Horror Show of State Employee Salaries

Fiddling with the rules while the economy burns


California paying a state psychiatrist $822,000 in total compensation for 2011 is the eye-popping number central to a six-part series Bloomberg is publishing to highlight "America's Great State Payroll Giveaway."

The series began yesterday with an overview of the various problems they'll be exploring. Beyond the politics that led to the high wages, they're analyzing how public pension fund managers cash in (even as pension systems are crashing), retirement spiking extravaganzas, and the many, many ways that public sector employees have managed to game the system to rake in even more bucks even as the economy tanked.

The series intends to explore more than just California, but their graph below does a very good job showing why they're starting with the Golden State:

For those who have lived in California for the past five or so years and have been paying attention to the public employee pay system, much of the information probably isn't new, but it is a helpful catalog of every disastrous public policy choice that led the Golden State to its own fiscal cliff. The crazy psychiatrist pay is the outcome of a state bidding war between agencies resulting from a ruling that the state needed to improve inmate care. Bloomberg's story today details the circumstances that led to a place where a doctor who was making $90.000 for six months of work in 2006 is making nearly 10 times that amount now. Tuesday's story delved into the crazy California Highway Patrol pay system that ultimately resulted in escalating raises for state officers. (The story doesn't delve as much into how the CHP system bounced back to municipalities with local police unions demanding raises in order to "stay competitive" in recruiting, but Bloomberg will be focusing on law enforcement pay on Monday and mentions how municipalities mimicking the CHP's pension system have contributed to their fiscal troubles.)

The timing of the series coincides well with an announcement yesterday that San Bernardino County will be shutting down the court at my own stomping grounds in Barstow, Calif., as part of state cutbacks. Barstow is a small town in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The closest town to them is Victorville, 30 miles away, which is where most of the criminal and family cases will be heading.  But many civil cases will be heading to San Bernardino or Rancho Cucamonga, which are about 70 miles away. It's even worse for folks out in Baker and Needles, small desert towns close to the state border. They may have to drive around 200 miles to handle any legal issues. I hope they aren't expecting those folks to show up for jury duty.