This summer, auditors found that bureaucrats at state parks headquarters hoarded $54 million that had gone undetected for more than a decade, even as 70 parks were set to close last month due to a lack of funding.
Now in their final days of session, state lawmakers moved to restore taxpayer confidence by allocating some of that money, $20 million, to help keep parks open. They also want a moratorium on any closures for two years. Part of that will match private donations that were given to specific parks.
"The people who had come up with the money and who had organized people locally to try and keep their parks open felt that as a breach of trust," St. Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said. "This is the state saying we're continuing to work in partnership with you and we want to build that trust."
Many donors who stepped forward threatened to take back their contributions if lawmakers dont let parks keep the hidden funds.
But not everyone is happy about where the money is going. Off-road enthusiasts support and pay an extra annual fee on their vehicle registration to help maintain the trails and facilities open to them within state parks. Lawmakers borrowed $10 million from that special fund this year, and some feel that money should re-paid.
"They won't give it back; so if they really had the money all this time, then they should put it back," St. Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, said.
Gov. Jerry Brown himself supports keeping the money within the parks budget and will likely sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
The Legislature will have to wait until next year to sepnd the rest of the money because investigations by auditors and the Attorney General are still pending.
The proposal also strengthens a state parks commission's ability to oversee the troubled parks department.