Friday, July 22, 2011

Implications of Perceptions of Waste and the Stem Cell Agency

The headline in The Sacramento Bee this morning read "Why raise taxes when officials squander our money?"

And prominently mentioned was the California stem cell research agency and the $400,000 salary of its new chairman.

The opinion piece was written by Dan Walters, The Bee's longtime time political columnist, whose articles are reprinted in many other newspapers around the state.

Walters was discussing efforts to raise taxes to help solve the state's ongoing budget crisis. He wrote,
"It's a valid debate to have, but voters' instinctive reluctance to pay more taxes is bolstered by a steady stream of incidents implying that the taxes they already pay are often wasted.

"Take, for example, what occurred as California State University system trustees raised student fees due to budget cuts. Simultaneously, they approved a $400,000 salary for the new president of San Diego State University, $100,000 higher than his predecessor.

"Brown publicly castigated the trustees.  'At a time when the state is closing its courts, laying off public school teachers and shutting senior centers, it is not right to be raising the salaries of leaders who – of necessity – must demand sacrifice from everyone else,'  Brown said.

"But Brown didn't utter a peep when the board that oversees a $3 billion stem cell research bond issue decided to pay its new Brown-appointed chairman – ironically – $400,000.

"So much for demanding sacrifice."
Walters continued,
"We can't solve our basic fiscal problems by just rooting out waste. But when officials squander our money, they undercut their own efforts to persuade voters to give them even more to spend."
Walters cited two other examples in addition to the stem cell agency. One involved the high speed rail project and the other state prisons.

Again, the point about all this is not the specifics on CIRM salaries but the environment in which the agency is operating. Concern about waste and/or excessive public sector salaries is not going to vanish, and the agency must deal with it if it is going to be successful in asking voters to approve another multibillion bond measure to continue its existence.

(A footnote: Walters was in error when he said Brown appointed new CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas. He was nominated by Brown and two other statewide officials and elected by the CIRM board.)

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