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California Focus: State money switches arouse suspicion

One reason Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 tax increases passed so handily last fall was that many voters became convinced that if they didn’t say yes to the new levies, the sky would fall.

Schools would suffer, services for the elderly — already devastated by previous budget cuts — might disappear. Police and fire personnel levels could be decimated. And much more.

 Those fears were enough to overcome the revelation of only a few months earlier that the state Parks and Recreation Department secretly squirreled away more than $53 million over 12 years by underreporting the amounts it held in special funds.

Private donors who put up millions of dollars to stave off budget-crunch closings of many park units were infuriated; some demanded their money back but didn’t get it.

 Brown’s office investigated and heads rolled. The state parks director was forced out, along with her second-in-command. But one finding of the investigation was that the Parks and Recreation malfeasance was an isolated case, even though department managers often hustle to spend every available dollar before the end of a budget cycle so those funds don’t automatically revert to the state’s general fund, the fate of unspent dollars not sitting in special funds like the parks department’s Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund, where $33.5 million was stashed.

But a series of revelations since then give cause to question the notion that the parks department was all that unique.

One example: Since 2005, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection maintained a separate account containing $3.66 million with the California District Attorneys Assn., paying the prosecutors’ group more than $370,000 in management fees. Some of the money was used to buy GPS monitors, printers and cameras, but the fund also paid for gatherings of firefolk around the state, including $33,000 for one conference in Pismo Beach.

It’s unclear why that money was hidden, but this question didn’t much interest Brown, who called the whole story “relatively boring, to tell you the truth.”

Then there was the sadly under-reported misuse of school lunch money, with more than $165 million meant for free or reduced-price student meals going for other purposes over the last few years. Meal money was not stolen, but spent on other school needs like sprinkler systems and salaries of employees of one district’s television station. No one knows how widespread the misappropriations have been, but the state has already gotten refunds from school districts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Santa Ana, among others.

Those bait-and-switch style operations deprived many poor kids of nutrition they needed to learn effectively.

It would be surprising if, taken together, all these incidents didn’t cause voters to wonder where else money is being hidden or misspent.

And there’s at least one more possible switcheroo in the works. This one involves the more than $1 billion a year from last fall’s Proposition 39, which closed some three-year-old corporate tax loopholes.

The measure promised that money would go to “energy efficiency projects at schools and other public buildings…all projects shall be selected based on in-state job creation and energy benefits…”

But just two months after 39 passed, Brown allocated all its money for energy projects at public schools and community colleges, the funds to passed out on a per-student basis.

Reach Thomas D. Elias, a long-time California political reporter: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

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