When Californians complain, as they sometimes have in recent years, that this state doesn’t receive its share of the federal pie – getting back only about 78 cents in federal spending for every dollar paid in taxes – they are in effect slamming Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and the other 53 politicians we’ve sent to the House of Representatives.
The latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau (in a report to be found at www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/cffr-10.pdf) spurred yet another round of such griping when California ranked just 43rd among the states in per capita federal spending.
And yet… a close look at the numbers that went into that ranking indicates California’s congressional delegation, in spite of its well-known and considerable ideological divisions and an infamous inability to reach bipartisan consensus on almost anything, may not be the culprit. Rather, a big villain in the piece from this state’s perspective is the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), which presided over two rounds of military base closures in the 1990s and another in 2005.
Another huge factor bringing down the state’s federal per capita spending rank is that percentagewise, Florida, West Virginia, and several other states have many more retirees than California drawing Social Security and other federal benefits.
So while pensions paid to Californians amount to about $2,270 per year (out of $8,784 in federal spending for every man, woman and child in California), in Florida they average about 50 percent higher, $3,404 per person. That’s the only reason Florida ranks 29th in federal spending, 14 places ahead of California.
But the military is the biggest reason per capita spending in California ranks so low. This may seem a bit incongruous with California playing host to huge Naval bases in San Diego and neighboring Coronado, the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps complex and Fairfield’s Travis Air Force Base, from which many military transports operate.
But, until recently, California had many more military bases than today. Among those closed have been the Long Beach Naval Shipyard; the El Toro Marine Air Base in Orange County, three Air Force bases in Riverside, San Bernardino and Sacramento counties; the Presidio of San Francisco and the Army’s training facility at Ft. Ord in Monterey County. All fell victim to BRAC’s cuts, which required yes or no votes on each full package, with no amendments allowed. Those conditions prevented Californians in Congress for doing much to mitigate the slashes.
The nine-member BRAC commission had only one member with any significant California background, Philip Coyle, a former associate director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, most of whom career was nevertheless spent in Washington, D.C. So there was no one very sympathetic to California’s huge economic interest in all those bases.
Because the base closures, the military spent just $10.3 billion on salaries in California in 2010. By comparison, military salaries in small-population states like Alaska ($3.2 billion), Alabama ($3.6 billion), Hawaii ($7.2 billion), and Georgia ($12.5 billion) were far higher on a per capita basis. Texas, with about two-thirds California’s population, saw military salaries of $19.7 billion. Do you think the extra 9 billion federal dollars might have had anything to do with Texas’ considerably lower unemployment statistics, touted so often by California’s critics?
The BRAC decisions are also reflected in federal procurement spending. Without all those closed military bases to supply and support, the military spent far less per capita on food and other items in California than it did in many other states.
One lesson from all this is that California’s congressional delegation was sorely mistaken and self-destructive when it backed creation of BRAC. That should never happen again, nor should Californians in Congress support any similar commissions to cut spending on other programs unless this state gets strong representation on them. Note: there is one Californian, Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra of East Los Angeles, on the current budget “supercommittee.” It remains to be seen whether he will fight for this state’s interests.
Without any doubt, the lowered federal spending caused by BRAC contributes significantly to economic problems of many kinds in California. There is less housing demand from military families here than at any time since the start of World War II. That helps fuel the foreclosure crisis, in turn contributing mightily to unemployment.
Base closings also lessened demand for other items from food and fuel to lumber, carpeting and air conditioning, all contributing to the state’s problems.
The bottom line: If any of this can be blamed on California’s congressional contingent, it was principally because of its votes to set up BRAC, which has decimated some parts of this state. But even if they’d opposed creating BRAC or accepting its reports, chances are they’d have been outvoted anyway.