California Common Sense: Stanford Minds Saving Stanford’s State

The nearly impermeable Stanford bubble keeps us as Stanford Students comfortably shielded from the problems of the California state government. But we have only to look across the Bay to see how serious those problems are. At UC Berkeley, students our age, studying our disciplines at a top national university like ours, are seeing their tuitions increased upwards of 30%, their classes cut, and their faculty fired. And as far as the state is concerned, Berkley is the rule, not the exception.

A $26 billion budget shortfall is forcing the state to make drastic emergency cuts throughout public sector spending. These include cuts to both higher and K-12 education, cuts to the health care services for low-income families, and cuts to infrastructure spending. And as one would expect of cuts made to relieve an immediate short-term deficit, these are necessarily haphazard, and in the words of Jerry Brown, “painful.”

However necessary such cuts may be in the short term, they are not a long-term solution because they fail to address the fundamental cause of California’s budget crisis: systematic, structural spending inefficiencies.

Let me be specific. Consider the prison system. Our state spends $47,000 per prisoner per year, over 50% more than the national average and nearly three times what Texas spends.

Or consider the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS). CHHS has 13 different departments. Findings from the California Performance Review suggest that their ill-coordination costs the state billions each year.

To cite just a few examples, beneficiary data for CHHS is stored in 60 different information systems, which not only leads departments to perform overlapping data collection but also multiplies maintenance costs. Likewise, eligibility for various state welfare programs is determined independently, so that the same data has to be processed multiple times by different departments.

No one benefits from this redundancy, least of all the beneficiaries who are forced to navigate a more complex bureaucracy because of it. And note that cutting a mere 10% of CHHS’s expenditures would close nearly a third of the budget gap.

These are not isolated cases. Redundancy, overpayment, and administrative sprawl have become the norms of this state government. In the UC system, the ranks of senior management have swelled 97% in the past ten years, while the student population has increased 40% and the faculty only 23%. There is now nearly one senior administrator for every faculty member.

Within the Natural Resources Department (NRD), there is both a Department of Conservation and the California Conservation Corp. Within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is both the Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Department of Toxic Substances Control. And in addition to the NRD and the EPA, there is an Ocean Protection Council. One struggles to imagine an arrangement in which there is no administrative and functional overlap among these bodies. Let those who maintain that there are no substantial savings to be gained by eliminating inefficiency imagine such an arrangement over the span of the state’s 11 agencies, 79 departments, and more than 300 boards and commissions.

If this structural inefficiency is not addressed, then the state’s present crisis is a good picture of its future. While Governor Brown might be able to close the current budget gap as the economy improves, the next economic downturn will bring another crisis — and another round of “painful” cuts. It is only so long before the effects of those cuts will be felt on our campus, bubble or no.

If there are any problems, then the California budget crisis is among them. This is why California Common Sense was formed. CACS is a team of Stanford students working to identify inefficiencies in state government operations, to make the public of aware of those inefficiencies, and to come up with policy measures to address them.

CACS was founded last summer by Matt Cook ’11, and Palantir cofounder and Stanford alum Joe Lonsdale ’03. In fewer than 12 months, it has already gained the attention of the state government. The CACS team has collected data on every one of the hundreds of independent entities that comprise the state government, and is working with the assistance of the governor’s office to collect and analyze detailed spending information for each.

At the same time, CACS has drawn attention from outside the state. The team has prepared spending analyses for U.S. Congressman Eric Cantor, the mayor of Atlanta, and the state of Georgia. Other U.S. congressmen have expressed interest in working with CACS to address spending inefficiency at the federal level.

CACS is already making the political elite take note. The reason, I think, is that the organization offers something rarely, if ever, seen in the political sphere: bright, young intellectuals concerning themselves with concrete government policy. Silicon Valley attests to the innovation of which such minds are capable. CACS is directing that capacity towards an institution in which innovation has long been lacking but is desperately needed.

I know from living on this campus that Stanford students have the best minds in the state. But that state is broken. Right now, in our tight Stanford bubble, it may be easy to ignore that fact as we tan in the California sun and as we see in our daily bike rides what makes California a remarkable place. But frankly, if someone is going to salvage this state, it may very well have to be us.

Evan Storms is the Director of Research for California Common Sense.

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