Sunday, May 24, 2009

The problem with money

In a previous lifetime, I worked as a lab rat for the CDFA. I felt more like a dairymaid, because my main duties were to prep, keep track of, and perform analyses on dairy products. It was a relatively easy job - I got to set my own hours (because I was a student), I learned a lot about professionalism, I worked with lots of really nice people. Lots of non-state employees sometimes have criticisms for state employees: they are slow (you would be too if you had to deal with all sorts of red tape and other bureaucratic things), they are weird (true, but usually in a good way), they complain a lot (also true - but they ACTUALLY have a lot to complain about and aren't just complaining for the sake of ranting).

Each year around this time, we would hunt around finding things to buy. What I mean, is that as the end of the fiscal year approaches, we would discover that we have an extra grand or two floating around, unused, and thus are pressured to use it for fear of not having that kind of budget in the next fiscal year. Nearly every single state agency does this mad scramble of spending cash, from food & ag to schools, to corrections.

Why don't we just save it, you say? Why don't we just NOT spend this extra cash on a stock pile of glass test tubes that will last through the end times and into the peaceful thousand years before that final spiritual battle? Why can't state workers rejoice that they came in under-budget, rather than go on a year-end spending spree that will eventually bring them over-budget?

Because the golden state has this ridiculous initiative process wherein 90% of the budget is locked. Immobile. Unmovable. Inflexible. World without end, amen. And if the agency doesn't spend this extra money, the gods of appropriations will think they don't need that much money and will shrink their source of funds. Which is a disaster because this kind of shrinking doesn't take into account inflation and unexpected cost rises. Which will leave the agency in a pinch the following year.

And that, my friends, is how some schools end up with a dozen extra portable classrooms filled with books, software, lab equipment, and india rubber balls that NO ONE EVEN KNOWS IS THERE, let alone uses it.

So here's my idea. Instead of punishing agencies for coming under-budget (which is what the current system does, in essence), let's reward them. Let's let the agency keep 90% of whatever they saved over the year - returning 10% to the state to, I don't know, pay down our astronomical debt maybe - and let's let the said agency do whatever they want with that surplus, like hiring a quality teacher or staff, instead of limiting to another ten classroom sets of Paint for Windows.

What do you think?

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