California Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered half of all mobile phones paid for by the state government to be confiscated by June 1, his office announced Tuesday, Jan. 11.

By taking away some 48,000 cell phones that are used by public employees, the move would save the state $20 million annually, according to the executive branch.

California pays for a cell phone for 40 percent of its state employees --  a total of 96,000 devices. Each costs on average $36 a month, according to Brown’s office. Brown’s executive order, his first since his Jan. 3 inauguration, would eliminate half of the phones currently in use.

“It is difficult for me to believe that 40 percent of all state employees must be equipped with taxpayer-funded cell phones,” Brown said in a press release. “In the face of a multi-billion dollar budget deficit, a cell phone may not seem like a big expense,” he continued. “But spending $20 million, and perhaps far more than that on cell phones can’t be justified.”

The decision comes a day after Brown proposed a plan to cut $12.5 billion out of California’s budget. Included in the plan was a 10 percent cut to many state workers’ salaries.

The idea of cutting costs by reducing the number of government-funded cell phones isn’t new. For example, last spring Corpus Christi, Texas, officials enacted a policy which cut city employee cell phone inventory in half, allowing only remote workers like meter readers and roadwork supervisors to carry city-issued cell phones, and those phones had to be left at the office at the end of each workday. All other city workers were told to use their personal phones on the job and submit reimbursement requests for the work-related minutes they use. The plan was estimated to save the city $100,000 a year.

In California, further research will be done by each state agency to determine which employees unquestionably need a phone to conduct business. However, because of phone contract obligations and termination penalties, it might not be feasible to eliminate the projected 48,000 phones by June, Brown conceded.

Brown’s order comes at a time when government agencies are relying more heavily on smartphones to conduct business outside the office. “The rapid advancement of smartphone and mobile computing device technology is making their use more attractive to government organizations as budgets continue to shrink and business needs drive increased worker mobility,” read an IT policy letter recently sent by the California Technology Agency to various state agency and department directors.

California Technology Agency spokesman Bill Maile said the agency's policy "simply requires personally owned smartphones to meet the state’s security requirements if they are used for work."  The policy actually helps achieve the governor’s goal, Maile said, by giving departments more flexibility and allowing staff to use their own equipment instead of a state-issued phone.

On Jan. 1, the state's IT agency released a new statewide model for teleworking that expands the definition for desktop and mobile devices to include smartphones, making them subject to all of the same rules and regulations as other computer devices.

Officials from Brown’s office weren’t immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Lauren Katims Nadeau  |  Contributing Writer