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Saturday, Sep 23, 2023

Government Services Ain’t What They Used to Be

CAPITOL OFFENSES Brendan Huffman The pessimist in me often thinks that we are going down the path of self-destruction as many of our most cherished government services become unsustainable. Here are some examples of worthy programs that used to work well but have emerged as Catch-22 situations for policy makers and stakeholders like us: Pensions: As the spouse of a city employee, I am paying particularly close attention to the growing challenges of unfunded pension liabilities and whether the city will go broke before my wife retires. In California, the state’s three pension plans will have obligations that amount to more than five times the state’s revenue by 2014, according to a report from the Milken Institute, thereby tripling what every Californian will be paying out of pocket. Last year, it was $3,000; by 2014, it will be $10,000. Here in Los Angeles, rising pension costs will consume an estimated third of the city’s entire budget by 2014, money that ordinarily would be used to maintain parks, roads and other services. In short, taxpayers will be asked to pay more for less. Social Security: It was implemented 75 years ago and is based on today’s working people paying a portion of their salaries into a retirement fund that retirees can live on after they have reached 65. A flaw in Social Security is that it depends on a growing population of younger workers to contribute their earnings to retired people who are growing longer than ever. As someone who thinks that the earth (and 405 freeway) is populated by more people than we can comfortably accommodate, it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation about population issues when Social Security demands a higher birth date than what America is providing. Regardless, 51 million Americans received approximately $650 billion in social security benefits last year, but a lot of folks my age wonder if there will be enough left in social security for when we retire, that is if we can afford to retire. Health Care: Like most people, I love the idea of providing affordable health care for everybody. The next question becomes to what extent do we provide health care to everybody and for how long? Should we all have access to highly educated doctors in Beverly Hills, or should most of us be satisfied with going to the declining number of health care clinics around the county? Should hundreds of thousands of dollars be spent to help chronically ill seniors live another day? What if doctors don’t all agree on the prognosis, let alone the cure? If health care is guaranteed for all, what is the incentive to take care of oneself? And, by the way, who are those doctors who keep approving disabled driver placards to those who clearly can climb in and out of large SUVs? Education: Of course, education should be provided for all. But what if not everyone wants to be educated? Based on my experience in public schools and from what I’ve observed in my children’s school, not all students show up to learn. Therefore, many of these students cause disruptions that prevent other students from learning all they can. An increasing number of parents who can afford to, enroll their kids in private schools where rules can be more easily enforced and behavioral issues can be addressed more readily. As a result, public education is all too often resembling child care centers instead of educational centers – all because too many parents rely on teachers to do the parenting in addition to the teaching. Energy/Water: It seems like the more we use less water and power, the more our rates go up. In fact, they do go up the more we conserve because reduced consumption means less revenues for utilities. So, every time we heed the calls from DWP to conserve water and electricity, we are costing L.A.’s municipally owned utility revenues it would have received had we used more. Workers’ Compensation: One of the great accomplishments from the Progressive Era was a system so that injured workers could avoid the poorhouse if their injuries were severe enough that employment was impossible. Since then, thousands of laws have been enacted to protect workers and hold employers accountable for keeping unsafe work sites. Today’s challenge is separating legitimate work injuries from injuries sustained on employees’ personal time off. Surely, most workers’ comp claims are legitimate, but the added scrutiny and lengthy amount of time to determine the cause of injury is a direct cause of those who try (and often succeed) at gaming the system. Nearly every business owner I know has at least one experience of an employee who took advantage of California’s workers’ comp rules, thereby adding to the cost of doing business and hurting those employees who need workers’ comp the most. Perhaps unwittingly, term limits in California and many cities and counties have eroded officeholders’ abilities to govern and fiscally manage. Time and time again, too many of our officeholders have declined to tackle tough issues because term limits inspires them to delay perceived hardship to the next batch of officeholders. While California went against the national grain by electing a slate of Democrats to statewide offices, our electorate is not that different from what occurred throughout the country. The GOP’s nominees in California did not fit the mold of the anti-establishment candidates swept into office elsewhere. Except for being women, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina largely portrayed the elitist side of Republicans who are more at home in country clubs than with middle class families facing foreclosures and higher costs of living. As Californians rejected every Republican candidate running for statewide office, voters also rejected most of the ballot initiatives endorsed by the Democratic Party, especially those on issues of taxation. Nonetheless, whatever one’s party affiliation, the fiscal health of all levels of government should be the top priority of every public official. Brendan Huffman is the owner of Huffman Public Affairs, a Valley-based consulting firm, and is the co-host of “Off The Presses,” a public affairs radio show streamed live every Wednesday, between 10-11 a.m., on www.LATalkRadio.com.

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