This commentary originally appeared in U-T San Diego on February 8, 2014.
A few days ago, I testified before the California Legislature about Texas’ successful criminal justice reforms. The crime rate in Texas has dropped to 1968 levels while the state recently closed three prisons. In contrast to California, with its federal court-ordered prison population reductions, Texas lawmakers have consciously sought to reduce crime by shifting resources from merely locking criminals up to instead, when appropriate, offering treatment, rehabilitation, and victim restitution.
Properly allocating limited taxpayer resources is a challenge. In California’s case, in the area of criminal justice, it would mean, among other things, beefing up treatment and monitoring of parolees at the local level. Local success in rehabilitation saves the state from paying to imprison nonviolent offenders, preventing many of them from becoming hardened criminals.
Beyond its troubled corrections system, how is California’s government doing? Most Californians have reconciled living in a state that taxes more, spends more, and controls more than is the norm across the nation. “It’s the price we pay to live in paradise,” they rationalize. But are Californians really better off with bigger government?
Texas and California are more alike than either state would care to admit: diverse, vast, and blessed with natural resources. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the equivalent of 1.76 million people worked full-time for state and local governments in California in 2011. That’s about one government worker for every 21 Californians. But the Lone Star State employs one government worker for every 18 Texans. While Texas has more government workers, California spends more on government — about 44 percent more as a share of the private economy than Texas, while taxing about 42 percent more state income. California pays its government workers far more and provides them with far more costly benefits. California also spends a lot more on welfare.
California and Texas also have widely different spending priorities. There are 12 million more Californians than Texans, but Texas employs more educators, 888,000, compared to California’s 865,000. In fact, only 49 percent of California’s state and local workers are in education vs. 61 percent in Texas. This may help explain the U.S. Department of Education’s recent estimate that 88 percent of Texas high school students graduate vs. 78 percent in California. As for police, fire and corrections employees, Texas has more per capita in every category than does California.
While California skimps on teachers, police and parole officers, it splurges on regulators and bureaucrats. Some 12 percent of California’s bureaucracy is engaged in the business of minding your business or in administrative overhead, twice the percentage in Texas. California employs 60 percent more regulators and bureaucrats per capita than Texas. An official study found that the cost of California’s myriady regulations came to $134,000 per year for the average small business. Statewide regulatory compliance costs were estimated at four times the amount spent every year in the general budget. Add this to California’s tax burden and is it any wonder that Texas is the No. 1 state of destination for Californians leaving the state?
Do Californians get a good return on their tax dollar “investment”? California’s vaunted highway system was rated the nation’s fourth worst. California has the highest poverty rate, according to a new census calculation that takes into account the cost of living and the value of government benefits. On a proportional basis, California has 45 percent more people in poverty than Texas. And, among the eight biggest states, the U.S. Department of Education rates California as having the poorest results in national standardized math and reading tests while Texas scores above average.
Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the threat to America wasn’t hard tyranny; rather, it was the soft tyranny of “a network of small complicated rules” driven by good intent. Factoring in taxes, spending, and the regulatory burden, California has the nation’s second-highest level of soft tyranny after New York. Texas has the least burdensome government.
The 10 states with the smallest government footprint saw an average of 64 percent higher private economic growth from 2002 to 2012 than the 10 with the biggest government. In the past two years, Texas’ per capita output surpassed California’s. Federal soft tyranny levels in recent years surged past the record high hit in 1980; is it any wonder the national economy is sluggish?
Perhaps if California hired more teachers and fewer regulators it would see prosperity on a Texas scale.
DeVore is vice president of policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served in the California Legislature from 2004 to 2010. He is the author of “The Texas Model: Prosperity in the Lone Star State and Lessons for America — 2014 Edition.”
© Copyright 2014 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.