Michael Krasny, in the July 23rd edition of his excellent Bay Area radio program Forum, interviewed Matt Weiser (the Sac Bee journalist who broke the State Parks story) as well as Bob Berman (vice president of the Benicia State Parks Association) and Elizabeth Goldstein (president of the California State Parks Foundation).
Weiser, who regularly covers State Park issues for the Bee, said he had been hearing rumors for some months about a hidden fund. Finally, after he made an official records request several weeks ago, State Parks admitted to its existence. Apparently Weiser not only broke the story, he seems to have broken it open.
Weiser’s article included this detail:
The money accumulated over 12 years in two special funds the department uses to collect revenue and pay for operations: $20.4 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund.
The most interesting aspect of the Forum discussion — which also included email, online comments and phoned-in comments from listeners — was how quickly it evolved into a discussion of larger questions: Can taxpayers trust that any state agency is handling its financial accounting responsibly? Did the California Finance Department or the Controller’s Department do regular audits? Will the discovery of this hidden $54 million fund allow all state parks to stay open?
Elizabeth Goldstein mentioned several times that there are deep structural problems in the State Parks Agency budget that will not be “in any long-term way mitigated” even if the legislature decides to return the $20.4 million balance in the Parks and Recreation Fund to State Parks, the most notable problem being the existence of a “deferred maintenance” balance of some $1.3 billion.
Listeners expressed outrage about widespread State Park fee increases over the last few years. Others mentioned all the volunteer and fund-raising efforts to keep parks open.
Some listeners said they wouldn’t be willing to vote for increased taxes for state government until they are satisfied that it can be a responsible financial steward, which is now seriously in doubt.
Goldstein and Berman agreed that these newly discovered funds will not substantially mitigate the long-term structural problems in State Parks funding, nor will they necessarily mean that all state parks will now remain open.
Another unknown, as Krasny mentioned, is what impact this scandal will have on the fate of tax measures currently before the legislature.
This story is only just beginning.
Listen to Krasny’s program in its entirety (52 minutes) by clicking the play button below: