Meg Whitman has finally given a specific example of jobs she would go after should she become governor: 150 jobs in the California Department of Education.
"The Legislative Analyst's Office found that the Department of Education has 150 staffers working on programs it no longer administers," she declared at the top of a recent radio ad.
For months, Whitman has indicated that a major way she intends to reduce California's budget deficit is by eliminating 40,000 jobs for a savings of $3.3 billion. But she has been reluctant to give specific numbers as to where exactly those jobs would come, and how she would even come close to reaching her target of 40,000.
In the radio ad, she linked the 150 jobs to a broader attack on waste fraud and abuse in state government, implying that there might even be something criminal about these jobs. If elected governor, she said she would impanel a grand jury to go after the wrongdoers.
"If you are caught robbing the taxpayer, you will go to jail," she warned.
But it turns out the suggestion that there are 150 people doing nothing in the California Department of Education is far more complex than Whitman's ad suggests.
Whitman is relying on an earlier recommendation by the Legislative Analyst's Office. In January, it first recommended that because the state Legislature has given school districts unprecedented flexibility in how they can spend billions of dollars for specific education programs – "categorical funds" in Sacramento-speak – the California Department of Education should eliminate 150 people who it said were no longer needed to administer each of those funds.
But publicly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell vigorously rejected the LAO's assertion, pointing out that the Department of Education's general fund revenues had dropped from $55.4 million in 2007-08 to $41.4 million during the 2009-10 fiscal year. It is slated to drop to $39.5 million during the current year. He noted that his department had already made massive cuts – even as the department was given additional responsibilities to receive, disburse and oversee billions of education stimulus funds from the federal government.
After months of negotiations, the LAO's office downscaled its recommendation that 150 jobs be cut by more than half, instead saying that 70 jobs, for a savings of $5.2 million, should be cut. This figure was included in a May 27 handout [PDF] submitted to the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, headed by state Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-San Diego.
"We worked with CDE over the spring to modify our original recommendation because they had said they already cut categorical positions," said Jennifer Kuhn, the LAO's director of K-12 education. "So we tried to reason through given their data how our original recommendation should be revised to take into account what they had already done."
Even the recommendation of 70 positions was vehemently disputed by O'Connell. In a nine-page single-spaced letter to Ducheny, in her capacity as chairwoman of the Budget Conference Committee, he said the "LAO's calculation of the magnitude of the cuts is grossly overstated and cuts … have already been implemented as part of 2009-10 budget cuts." He went on to say that "a cut of this magnitude will eliminate much of the CDE's ability to provide critical services currently mandated by law."
As a result of further negotiations, the Budget Conference Committee settled on a projected reduction of 22 positions, for a savings of $2.6 million – a far cry from the 150 positions originally proposed by the legislative analyst.
When I spoke to the Whitman campaign and pointed out the LAO's reduced figure, along with the further reduction to 22 positions by the Budget Conference Committee, spokeswoman Sarah Pompei continued to refer to the LAO's original 150 job-cut proposal.
"It's not surprising that those beholden to the public employee unions who are fighting to keep the status quo ... would continue to authorize more than a hundred permanent positions for a one-time project," said Pompei, referring to the administration of one-time stimulus funds. "According to the Legislature's own analyst, more than 50 jobs that should be eliminated are continuing to be funded. This is the prime example of why Meg's leadership is needed more than ever in the governor's office."
The LAO's office should take some responsibility for burying its scaled-back recommendation in a single line on page 8 of its May 27 handout – a line that is hard to find on its website. Its original recommendation was still on its website until just weeks earlier.
O'Connell's office also points out that the LAO makes hundreds of recommendations, some of which make sense, and some of which don't. "Just because bad information is printed, doesn't mean that it is correct," Hilary McLean, O'Connell's spokesperson told me this week, referring to the LAO's recommendations.
If there is such heated debate, and confusion, over just 150 jobs in one government department, imagine the firestorm that is likely to arise should a Governor Whitman attempt to implement her plan to cut the remaining still unspecified 39,850 jobs in Sacramento and elsewhere around the state.