Useless Prison Avoids Budget Ax
Nevada has a prison it doesn't need.
The governor wants to close it. The Department of Corrections wants to close it. A business advisory group said to shut down the prison as soon as possible.
Yet, when a deal was reached last week on a $900 million budget deficit, the 148-year-old Nevada State Prison at Carson City had escaped the budget ax yet again. Instead, Nevada will raise fees on business, reduce education spending and raid accounts for environmental protection and other purposes.
The state's opportunity to save $12 million had lost out to concerns about how the closing would affect guards who work there and the struggling economy of Carson City, the state capital. The survival of the 148-year-old prison is an example of how hard it is for government to operate with business-like efficiency, even when in dire financial need.
States across the USA are streamlining operations and reducing waste to cope with falling tax collections. They're merging departments and centralizing purchasing. Connecticut even closed a prison.
Yet for every money-saving step, other actions - things businesses would do automatically - are left undone.
"The prison is a classic example," says businessman Bruce James, chairman of the Nevada Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, a governor-appointed panel that's advising the state on how to do more with less. "The union is opposed to closing the prison, and the Legislature doesn't have the backbone to do it."
The Nevada State Prison, one of the nation's oldest, requires three times as many guards per inmate as a modern prison. "Electronic supervision is much tougher at an old prison, and things keep breaking down" says Nevada Department of Corrections spokeswoman Suzanne Pardee.
The state has built new facilities that can hold the old prison's 800 inmates, but some of the 165 guards could lose their jobs or have to relocate to prisons far from Carson City.
"Even when the numbers make sense, you come up against the political side, and people ask, 'Is there another way to save $12 million?' " Pardee says.
The union argued that state employees had sacrificed enough in earlier budget cuts. Carson City has been hit hard by the recession, even harder than the rest of Nevada.
The county's unemployment rate was 12.7 percent in December, up from 9.0 percent a year earlier and 5.6 percent when the recession began.
Jobs are the area's No. 1 political issue.
"I told everyone they needed to be very careful about closing that prison because while we want what's best for Nevada, we also have to think about what's best for the local economy," says Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell, a lawyer. "That's 136 jobs and 136 families that could be hurt."
Rochester Institute of Technology professor William Johnson Jr., a former mayor of Rochester, N.Y., says government efficiency often collides with political reality. He has been a vocal advocate of governments consolidating operations to save money. "I can teach this as theory in class all day long, but take it out into the community, and you run into all kinds of obstacles," Johnson says.
Nevada isn't alone in failing to maximize efficiency.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to save $462,000 a year by eliminating state permits for child entertainers because school districts already issue similar permits.
The federal government still files tax liens by paper in 4,000 jurisdictions. Congressional advocates say filing the liens on a central Internet site would save more than $100 million a year.
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, says big governments tend to be less efficient than small ones. He ranks the federal government as least efficient, followed by states and then local government.
Florida TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro says efforts to improve government efficiency often get caught in a clash between the cultures of business and politics.
"Government can be more business-like, but you have to understand that business doesn't run based on statutes and laws. Government does," Calabro says.
His group oversaw a task force that recommended more than $3 billion in cost-saving changes for Florida. Calabro expects two-thirds to be adopted. The key: The committee included leading elected officials of both parties, as well as business leaders.
"You have to write recommendations in the language and lore of legislative committees to get things done," Calabro says. Otherwise, well-meaning business recommendations - such as centralizing purchasing or using office space more efficiently - won't produce results, he says.
Ending wasteful practices can require crossing 635 lines out of budgets and various laws, Calabro says.
"You have to go after everything from 50 different directions. You have to surround it, quarter it, smother it, and then come back later to make sure it's still dead," he says.
New York state Sen. Joel Klein, a Democrat, is trying to change his state's culture. He's joined Republicans on a new anti-waste committee that's tackling cost-saving measures that are hard to execute, such reducing unnecessary overtime and consolidating operations.
"Now is the time," Klein says. "The old adage of 'do more with less' is here."
Susan Urahn, head of the Pew Center on the States, a public policy research group, is optimistic that hard times will compel more efficient government, such as consolidating school districts and court systems. Better management is "not always the fun policy stuff. But if you get it right, it can take you far."