Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bill devotes $20M in hidden funds to state parks - Sacramento Bee

California would use $20 million found hidden in a state Department of Parks and Recreation special fund to keep all parks open under a bill approved Thursday by the state Senate.

AB1478 also imposes a two-year moratorium on any parks closures. Senators passed the bill, 25-12, in response to a scandal in the parks department and sent it back to the Assembly for a final vote.

Auditors found nearly $54 million hidden in two special funds, even as 70 parks were threatened with closure in July because of budget cuts. Most parks ultimately stayed open with the help of local governments and community organizations that contributed before the money was discovered.

The bill creates a dollar-for-dollar matching fund to encourage communities to continue helping local parks.

"We will then in effect be rewarding good behavior" by local partners, said budget committee chairman Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who carried the bill in the Senate. "We want to get the word out that we want you to continue to support your local park."

The $20 million comes from an account funded by parks and recreation fees. Leno said the Legislature next year plans to also spend the remaining money, which was found in an off-highway vehicle fund. He said lawmakers need to wait to act on that fund until auditors and the attorney general complete their investigations of the parks department.

The delay in distributing the off-road money drew complaints from Republicans.

Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, supported the bill but said the $20 million should be refunded to cities and counties that raised money to keep their local parks open, rather than used to match their contributions.

The bill is not specific on how the $20 million will be spent, other than to match $20 million in local funds to help pay for park operations. The bill separately includes $10 million in bond money to pay for capital improvements at the parks, things like replacing and repairing restrooms and fee kiosks.

The bill also expands and strengthens a state parks commission that will oversee the troubled parks department.

"We've all been chagrined and horrified" by the parks scandal, said Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. She said strengthening the commission "is going to provide the absolutely necessary citizens oversight that we need."

The bill is one of several seeking to improve accounting not only in the parks department but of more than 500 special funds scattered throughout the state budget.

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