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Contrary to what many politicians seem to believe, government makes mistakes. For example, as the intrepid Jon Ortiz of the Sacramento Bee notes, the state of California recently overpaid some 20,000 employees. The overpayments amount to $37 to $101 per employee and, overall, about 5 percent of all state paychecks in a single month. It was apparently a matter of “human error,” and as Mr. Ortiz observes “now the government wants it back.” Odds are the state will get the money back, and that seems right. On the other hand, taxpayers seldom get paybacks.
Taxpayers see their hard-earned money squandered in various ways, as this column often notes. Recall the $5 billion in cost overruns on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, to take just one example. The most prodigious waste, unfortunately, does not prompt any campaign to compensate the taxpayers who paid the bills, and when the state enjoys a surplus, that seems to prompt only more spending. Exceptions are rare.
In 1987, governor George Deukmejian approved a $1.1 billion refund of surplus state money that gave taxpayers checks of up to $236, before Christmas of that year. This was not a gift but a refund of surplus funds. Californians will be hard pressed to find similar examples in the nearly three decades since, and the momentum runs the other way. California is now the least tax-friendly state and the pillage people are pushing to extend the temporary tax hikes of Proposition 30. The roads may be rough in the Golden State but government greed is always in high gear.