It was an embarrassing and potentially significant setback for Gov. Jerry Brown and his ballot initiative to raise taxes when nearly $54 million in apparently hidden state money appeared.
The disclosure of the surplus – of which the administration said it was previously unaware – suggested vulnerability in Brown's carefully managed reputation for financial discipline, and anti-tax advocates pounced.
"Sacramento politicians want you to pay more in taxes, but yet they can't even keep track of the money they have," Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state Republican Party executive director, said on Twitter within hours of the news.
Brown has enacted billions of dollars in spending cuts since taking office, and he rests his tax measure on the argument that California can afford to cut no more.
The parks scandal – the state Department of Parks and Recreation had been sitting on a surplus even as the state moved in its budget crisis to close parks – involves a relatively small amount of money. But it could undercut Brown's message: Hidden cash is the kind of outrage made for campaign advertising, and Brown himself has proved the public relations value of small sums.
This is the Southwest Airlines-flying governor who invited reporters to his office when he banned state purchases of knickknacks. And in his first, Web-only tax campaign ad, Brown this week again reminded viewers that he recalled thousands of state-issued cellphones and cars.
"The governor has some good anecdotes that are working for him," said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego.
The parks scandal, Kousser said, gives anti-tax advocates an effective one, too.
Brown made no public statement about the parks situation as it unfolded Friday, and his administration moved to distance the governor from it.
The California Natural Resources Agency said in a prepared statement that "the underreporting occurred over the course of two prior gubernatorial administrations." Parks employees were ordered to preserve records dating to 1998.
In a call with reporters, agency Secretary John Laird said it was Brown's administration that uncovered the underreporting.
"Since he's been there, there's been a major reorganization to make things run better," Laird said. "People had to give back their cars. Cellphones were cut in half. Basically, there were cuts made to programs that hadn't been done in a long time, and he believes in making all those tough decisions and being as transparent as possible, and that's exactly what he's doing here, even though that creates a difficult moment."
Dan Newman of SCN Strategies, the consultancy conducting Brown's tax campaign, said the parks scandal has nothing to do with the tax campaign, and he disputed that it could influence the outcome.
"Prop. 30 is about schools and public safety funding," he said, "not high-speed rail or the price of tea in China or anything else."
The story is not likely to go away soon. Both houses of the Legislature announced they will hold hearings on the matter in August.
The episode is the latest in a series of potentially unhelpful developments for Proposition 30, in which Brown is seeking to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners. Earlier this week, it came out that more than 900 state legislative employees received pay raises this year, and Brown signed legislation authorizing initial construction of California's $68 billion high-speed rail system, an unpopular bill.
"The administration and those who advocate for higher taxes are giving us these issues on a silver platter, whether it's high-speed rail, whether it's the legislative pay increases," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
"We're seriously considering making Gov. Brown and (Senate President Pro Tem) Darrell Steinberg and (Assembly Speaker) John Pérez as our surrogates for the 'No' campaign."