State Auditor Elaine Howle has been on a roll lately, repeatedly revealing how state agencies and their programs fall short — often very far — in fulfilling their stated missions.
The Department of Employment Development, the state’s myriad flawed information technology projects, and its scattered and ineffective efforts to end homelessness, build affordable housing, and improve education for poor children have been the subject of recent scathing reports from Howle’s office.
Howle considers only those issues that the Joint Legislative Audit Committee deems worthy of consideration. This committee, like all other enclaves of political power on Capitol Hill, is controlled by Democrats, and the investigations it orders are often directed at state agencies and programs run by a Democratic governor. So the results of the audits are likely to embarrass this governor and in this age of political polarity, that is a remarkable fact.
However, it is not a perfect accountability system. When the Department of Motor Vehicles was in the throes of a meltdown a few years ago, with long lines for service and unresponsive communications, Democrats controlling the audit committee refused to allow Howle to investigate. He bowed to the government of the day. Jerry Brown’s promise to shape the DMV on his own, but when Gavin Newsom succeeded him as governor, the department was still a mess.
Last year, when similarly immense service blockages became evident at the Department of Employment Development as it attempted to deal with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the audit committee did not did not hesitate to have Howle investigate. It revealed a department in disarray, handing out billions of dollars in unemployment benefits to fraudsters while delaying payments to legitimate claimants.
Howle’s latest poster, released two weeks ago, criticizes a political sacred cow – the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) drive to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and thereby make California a world leader in the fight against climate change. Howle’s report punched holes in CARB’s much-vaunted claims of achieving big reductions.
“CARB has not done enough to measure the GHG emission reductions achieved by its individual transportation programs,” Howle wrote in a cover letter to Newsom and legislative leaders. “Specifically, CARB has not collected or evaluated enough data to allow it to determine whether or how its incentive programs, which pay consumers in exchange for the purchase of low- and zero-emission vehicles, reduce emissions of GHGs beyond what CARB regulations already require.
“For example, CARB has done little to measure the extent to which its incentive programs are driving emissions reductions by incentivizing individuals and businesses to acquire clean vehicles that they otherwise would not. As a result, CARB overestimated the GHG emission reductions achieved by its incentive programs, although it is unclear by how much.
Conclusion: “The State will fail to meet the 2030 goal “of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels” unless the emission reductions occur at a faster pace.”
As with his other reports, Howle’s dive into the highly technical realm of GHG emissions control is embarrassing to state political leaders, who prefer the public to believe their self-serving claims.
However, it also highlights the value of having someone without a political motive looking into governance issues. Thank goodness we have Howle’s office and the equally important Office of the Legislative Analyst, which monitors state budget issues, to shed light on the darker recesses of California’s massive government.
Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.