March 16, 2000
If you think cutting a government's budget necessarily makes it more efficient, take a look at the state of Florida. Florida has no state income tax -- zip, nada -- most of its money comes from a 7 percent sales tax falling heavily on tourists. Yet it continues to waste money in new and exciting ways.
For a half a year I worked as a graphic designer for the Florida Department of Health. (When I started the job, I had to sign separate loyalty oaths to the state of Florida and to the U.S. I asked if, in case Florida seceded again, my allegiance to the U.S. had precedence. No one had an answer for me.) You'd think that a place where malaria is still a problem would have a clearer sense of priorities, but not from what I've seen. A fair amount of my time there was spent designing various freebie items -- stationery, Post-its, magnets, etc. -- for the state's Kidcare program. Kidcare is the state's half-assed attempt to offer poor parents health insurance for their kids, but in practice, it's barely better than no insurance at all. They nickel-and-dime their policyholders to about the same degree.
The Kidcare people don't want any of the materials to look like actual insurance materials -- they tested poorly in the focus groups -- so they want everything to be really cute. Thank the gods they aren't spelling "care" with a k, but they do like everything to look like it was done in crayon by children, just the sort of professionalism I'm looking for from actuaries and health administrators. In the waiting room I'm always secretly hoping I'll get Doogie Houser, M.D., to check out my irritable bowel. I like my prescriptions written out in Crayola with a couple of the letters backwards, just in case the pharmacist isn't completely confused.
For months now, they were going back and forth with the graphics department over their letterhead, business cards, and envelopes. By the time I left, they still hadn't decided if they wanted their address on any of it. They already changed their phone number midstream -- somebody decided they needed a number whose last 4 digits spelled out "KIDS" -- so we had scores of notepads that were for internal use only since the number was no longer current.
So they still didn't have any letterhead, but they did have me do the designs for their mugs, squeeze bottles, Frisbees, and Slinkies. That's right: The state is nickel-and-diming poor kids over health coverage, and they're slapping their logo on Slinkies, as if anybody makes their health-care decisions on whether their HMO has its own toy that walks down stairs alone or in pairs. Does it cover pre-existing conditions, or does it make a slinkity sound?
And they're rainbow-colored Slinkies. Nothing says sincerity like rainbows. I learned that from Jesse Jackson, Deadheads, and gay pride. I'm surprised they haven't worked a pastel unicorn in there somewhere.
Their stress balls are heart-shaped. Nothing says "I care" like squeezing on a rubbery heart when you're about to bust a blood vessel in the forehead. Every time I held one, I thought of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. "Tali Mal . . . Tali Mal . . ."
We had a stack of refrigerator magnets, printed with the old number (which didn't spell anything cute), that will never be distributed to the public, sitting in the office.
Kidcare wanted to give away those little safety things that plug in to electrical outlets so that children won't stick forks in them. They wanted to put their logo on them -- in hot pink. The whole idea behind the plugs is that they're supposed to blend into the outlet so kids won't be interested in them, and Kidcare wanted them to be bright pink. Eventually I showed them the light on that one.
It's not an abundance of money that makes state employees waste it. The problem is, they have to spend it, otherwise they won't get it next year, when they might really need it, and figuring out sensible ways to spend it would take too much time. Cutting budgets only means the state can't hire new people as permanent employees. The result is a higher turnover rate among the workers who have the most day-to-day contact with the public. So taxpayers get frustrated at having to deal with state employees who, understandably, don't know their way around the bureaucracy, and so citizens become even more convinced that the state is inefficient and needs its budget cut. Lather, rinse, repeat. This has no effect whatsoever on the deadwood; they're permanent and nothing short of promotion will get them out of where they are.
Even a no-income-tax state like Florida in locked into exclusive contracts for office supplies that mean taxpayers pay $400 for an office chair that costs $40 at Office Depot. That item sticks out especially for me; it meant that at my job I couldn't get a new chair. So I guess that's one victory for fiscal conservatives: a graphic designer making $9 an hour without benefits had to do computer work sitting on a nonadjustable office chair from the '50s at a desk that couldn't possible accomodate a keyboard tray and pullout mousepad. Of course, if I'd developed carpal tunnel, the taxpayer would wind up footing the bill, but that's a small price to pay for fiscal conservatism.
© 2000 Randel Shard