The surprising finding of $54 million in special-fund accounts of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, when there was talk of closing the parks due to a lack of funding, negatively impacts the confidence voters have now that they are being asked to approve a tax hike.
Although Governor Jerry Brown downplayed the situation, which already prompted the department’s director to resign, the incident lays bare the lack of adequate oversight. Even worse, it begs a question: Is the same thing happening in the more than 500 special accounts throughout the state government?
These types of accounts receive almost $37 billion annually from specific revenue sources like permits, licenses, fees, etc. This money, unlike the $97 billion in the general fund, is subject to a much lower level of scrutiny. In this case, the funds found in the Parks accounts were once reported to the state controller, who included them in his annual reports. The problem is that the Department of Finance did not compare its information against these reports, a process it follows for the more than 500 special accounts.
Brown’s order to conduct a general review of funds is the right step to give transparency to an area of the government that for a long time has remained outside the public’s attention.
The Parks Department is also responsible for other questionable actions, like the creation of a program to reimburse 57 employees a total of $271,000 for their unused vacations. But the damage stemming from all this can be much worse.
The governor bet all his chips on a November ballot initiative to increase taxes, with the goal of tackling the deficit. The alleged lack of funds in state parks was extensively debated in public given the possibility of having to close many parks. This crisis, now with the finding of funds, looks more like the result of the government’s administrative inefficiency than of economic conditions.
At this time, the worst that can happen is for some to see confirmation that Brown is exaggerating about the impact of the deficit and trying to scare voters into approving his initiative. In reality, the impact of the crisis is very real and devastating, especially for the social benefits network.