Professors and prisons
People are feverish about government these days—what its role should be, what it accomplishes (and doesn’t) and what we taxpayers should pay for the privilege. In California, chronic budget shortfalls make questions like these even more present in our minds. So the California Budget Project’s recent release of an overview report—a kind of state of the state’s workforce—was brilliantly timed.
“Professors and Prison Guards: An Overview of California’s State Workforce” illuminates how, in fact, our states turns out to have fewer public employees per capita than most other states. California actually ranked last among the 50 states in state employees per capita in three years of the 1998-2008 decade. In 2008, California ranked 48th.
The report also revealed that the vast majority of these employees work in education, public safety or in the prison system. About one-third of all state employees had jobs in higher education in 2008-2009, mostly in the University of California and the California State University systems.
Some departments have shrunk these past two decades (most notably, the Department of Food and Agriculture declined 17 percent in payroll over that period). But one department has ballooned. The total state prison corrections budget has literally doubled over those same two decades; the system has grown at four times the rate of the rest of state employment.
Ultimately, the report makes a good case that (a) the prison system is a runaway train for state spending, and (b) that California is not going to be able to drastically reduce state employment without having a major impact on direct services to residents. As budget talks continue, it would be good to keep both these take-home lessons in mind.