Dan Walters

Observations on California and its politics

Dan Walters: Featherbedding in Caltrans: 3,500 surplus jobs

05/27/2014 5:37 PM

05/27/2014 10:11 PM

The U.S. Department of Labor once defined “featherbedding” as “a derogatory term applied to a practice, working rule, or agreement provision which limits output or requires employment of excess workers and thereby creates or preserves soft or unnecessary jobs …”

That’s a pretty good description of what’s been happening in California’s Department of Transportation vis-à-vis those it employs to design and supervise construction projects.

The Legislature’s budget analysis office has been hammering what it regards as overstaffing in “capital outlay support” due to a declining workload not being matched by a declining staff.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed some token responses, including a 195-position reduction in his 2014-15 budget. But, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) concludes, “the governor’s proposals would result in the program being overstaffed by about 3,500 full-time equivalents beginning in 2014-15 at a cost of more than $500 million.”

That’s $500 million that would be unavailable for actual improvements of a system that has the nation’s worst congestion and its second worst pavement conditions.

The overstaffing amounts to a third of Caltrans’ project support employees, the LAO says in a highly critical report released as legislators were making detailed decisions on the 2014-15 budget.

And what happened, one might wonder, when the Assembly’s budget subcommittee dealing with transportation took up the governor’s late-blooming request (dated May 1) for a 195-position reduction in the staff that would save an estimated $21.8 million?

The union that represents Caltrans engineers, Professional Engineers in California Government, didn’t like the idea of even a relatively tiny workforce reduction and communicated that displeasure to subcommittee members. The union, like all public employee unions, has helped Democrats achieve and retain majority status in the Legislature, so when it speaks, politicians listen.

Squeezed between the union and the LAO’s unvarnished overstaffing report, the committee’s Democrats devised a novel – if blatantly political – solution.

They approved the 195-position cut and in the next breath added back in almost exactly that number of positions to develop a $1 billion “shelf” of projects to be built if and when there’s money to build them.

And how likely is that? Not very.

Highway bond money is almost exhausted, and while there is a huge need for more construction, there’s no money on the horizon to pay for it.

An ad hoc civic committee has been trying to find a new source of highway money, but to no avail.

If the “shelf” decree survives the budget process, Brown may well veto it, thus taking legislators off the political hook. But it would still result in only a 195-position cut in response to a 3,500-position overstaffing.

About This Blog

Dan Walters' column appears in dozens of California newspapers. He joined the Sacramento Union’s Capitol bureau in 1975 and in 1981 began writing the state’s only daily newspaper column devoted to California political, economic and social events. He and the column moved to The Sacramento Bee in 1984. Contact him at dwalters@sacbee.com or 916-321-1195. Twitter: @WaltersBee


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