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California’s Catalog of Dysfunctional Programs Continues to Grow

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California has amassed a catalog of programs and projects that fail to deliver as promised. The list of dysfunctional efforts has a couple of new entries. (CalMatters/CatchLight Local/Larry Valenzuela)
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Since the turn of the century, California has amassed a catalog of dysfunctional state projects that have failed to accomplish what they were supposed to do, or ran up costs beyond rational expectations.

A few come to mind, in no particular order.

Dan Walters with a serious expression

Dan Walters

CalMatters

Opinion

When voters passed a $9.95 billion bond issue in 2008 to finance a bullet train to connect the northern and southern regions of California, the total cost was pegged at $33 billion. Sixteen years later, construction is still underway on an initial segment in the San Joaquin Valley running from Merced to Bakersfield that will cost at least as much as the whole project was supposed to cost.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has not figured out how to raise another $100 billion to build the entire project.

When more than 3 million Californians lost their jobs four years ago after state officials ordered shutdowns to combat COVID-19, the Employment Development Department suffered a meltdown while trying to handle a deluge of claims for unemployment insurance.

While legitimate claims were stalled, EDD handed out billions of dollars to fraudsters. The state now is trying to correct what went wrong, but the acid test will be how EDD performs when the next recession strikes.

California has made multiple attempts to streamline governmental operations by employing information technology, but the projects have often been very expensive and failed to meet expectations. The poster child is the Financial Information System for California, or FI$Cal, which has been in the works for nearly two decades and still suffers from bugs that have rendered it unusable for many purposes, costing many millions of dollars.

The state has spent billions of dollars to reduce its ever-growing numbers of homeless people. However, state and local officials have squabbled incessantly over which programs are effective, how money should be divvied up and who should be accountable for results.

Meanwhile, the homeless population is 40% higher than it was when Gov. Gavin Newsom took office five years ago.

The Newest Dysfunctional Programs

Two more candidates for the catalog of chronic dysfunction have popped up recently.

California received $800 million from a settlement with German carmaker Volkswagen over its cheating on pollution emission testing and has spent $600 million to install a network of chargers for electric vehicles, but studies have found that many of them are unusable.

Members of the California Air Resources Board took turns last week expressing frustration with the high failure rate of Electrify America’s network, lamenting that it would discourage people from buying zero-emission vehicles.

Nevertheless, the board voted unanimously to give the company the remaining $200 million.

As for the other candidate, California has been reducing the number of inmates in its prisons for the past decade, responding both to federal court decrees about overcrowding and changing political attitudes. From a high of about 170,000 inmates 18 years ago, the prison population has declined to about 90,000. Nevertheless, the prison system’s costs have continued to climb, thanks to ever-increasing costs of health care and generous contracts with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union for prison guards, pushing their salaries to an average of $158,000 a year.

It now costs taxpayers $132,860 a year for every person still behind bars, according to calculations by CalMatters. That’s 50% higher than the cost for someone to attend Stanford University.

One might think that the Legislature would do its duty by delving into these dysfunctions and holding administrators, including the governor, accountable. But California is a one-party state and Democratic legislators are reluctant to embarrass a Democratic governor, so they pay only passing attention to managerial failings.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He has written more than 9,000 columns about the state and its politics and is the founding editor of the “California Political Almanac.” Dan has also been a frequent guest on national television news shows, commenting on California issues and policies.

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