Three Reasons Why a Cap on Salaries Is Meaningless

The shortest way to explain the California governance disease is this: instead of thinking or managing a problem, Californians love to impose a formula instead.

It is all these formulas, taken together, that have made the state ungovernable.

It is in this context that a recent debate over legislation to limit the salaries of state workers to what the governor makes should be considered.

Yes, the idea of a cap on public workers has good old-fashioned populist appeal. There aren't many workers who should be making more than $174,000, which is a large amount of money (this journalist could only dream of making anywhere near that amount) and is what Gov. Jerry Brown takes home to his Sacramento loft and Oakland home.

So when the proposal failed to make it out of committee, there was predictable outrage, mostly from its Republican backers.

Stop it with the outrage, for three reasons.

1. It's a non-solution in search of a problem.

The biggest salaries for public jobs in the state are at the university system, which sets its priorities independently and wouldn't be governed by this cap (and needs flexibility to compete for the best professors and administrators).

Applying this to the 2,000 or so workers who aren't in the UC and make that kind of money wouldn't save much at all.

2. The governor is a poor starting point for a cap.

The state is essentially ungovernable, so there's no shortage of people who can't govern it.

The job's rewards are fame and prominence. But there are many fewer engineers who know how to manage networks or protect old bridges and dams. Employees with deep expertise may well be worth more than the governor.

3. Broad caps don't work.

The state has various spending caps, but complaints about overspending continue. The truth is that the state government is very spare at this point, spending less per capita than it has in 40 years. The big over-spending is in certain sectors -- particularly on salaries and benefits for law enforcement officers, both in the prisons and in local governments.

Of course, going after the pay and benefits of public employees with guns is a lot harder than a blanket cap on state workers.

The fact that this legislation did the latter, rather than the former, shows that it was merely a way to score political points -- and not a serious move to regulate out-of-control compensation.

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Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).
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