Gov. Jerry Brown has the right idea for using "hidden" money from a special fund found in the state parks budget. Keep it in the parks system.
The parks debacle also revealed, incredibly, that the state Department of Finance in the past did not reconcile and confirm balances between the state controller's office and the governor's budget.
Brown has changed that – not just for parks but for all state departments. That's a good thing, given the errors – yes, human error does occur – uncovered across the state's 560 special funds.
The issue is what to do with the "found money" in two special funds that had "hidden" money for more than a decade:
Parks and Recreation Fund:
This was created by legislation in 1979. All fees earned by the department from camping, day use, museums and concessions are deposited into the fund and are "available for expenditure for state park planning, acquisition, and development projects, operation of the state park system, and resource and property management and protection, when appropriated by the Legislature."
That fund actually had $52.1 million, but only $31.7 million was reported for the governor and Legislature to make spending choices.
Brown wants to put the $20.4 million in "found money" toward one-time projects – to reduce the $1.3 billion backlog of maintenance projects that have been building for years. He also would like some money also go toward creating a state matching fund for private donations to the park system.
This should help, at a minimum, with parks threatened with closure due to water, wastewater and septic system problems due to aging facilities and visitation beyond the capacity of these older systems. It should also help the entire 278-park system with repairs and improvements.
The matching fund is an idea this editorial board has advocated for some time.
In 2000, then-Assemblyman Fred Keeley, D-Santa Cruz, proposed a $2 billion endowment – $1 billion from what was then a state surplus and $1 billion from private foundations. Then-Gov. Gray Davis rejected the idea.
If the state were to use a portion of the $20 million in "found money," it wouldn't create a "21st Century State Parks Endowment" as large as Keeley proposed, but it would be a start.
Off-highway Vehicle Fund:
This fund has a balance of some $165 million but only $131.6 million was reported. Brown has yet to say what he would do with the $33.5 million in "found money." That money, which is dedicated to OHV purposes, will be dealt with in future budgets says his finance director.
The governor should look closely at that fund now. We all pay gas taxes and the money goes into the Motor Vehicle Fuel Account of the Transportation Tax Fund. A percentage of it goes into the Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund, based on an estimate of how much OHVs generate in fuel taxes. A 2006 report found that the OHV fund is receiving more than it should.
Most important, Brown has indicated that the parks windfall should stay within the state park system itself – not put it into the state's general fund. The Legislature, too, should support that.