Influenced by Scandal, State Parks Legislation Lands on Governor’s Desk

Now that we’re all back from Labor Day weekend and nursing sunburns, this seems like a good time to review two key bills related to the future of state parks: AB 1589 and AB 1478.

Gazing into a beautiful oak tree at Henry Coe State Park. If we shake it, will money roll down? (Credit: KQED/Rachael Myrow)

Bear in mind everything parks-related moving through Sacramento now references the summer scandal that exploded when the Sacramento Bee reported that the Parks Department kept millions of dollars off the books when they filed annual reports with the Department of Finance, giving the impression  a big deficit existed when that was not actually the case. Parks director Ruth Coleman resigned as a result of the scandal.

AB 1589, by Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), requires that the Department of Parks & Recreation develop an “action plan” for generating revenue, as well as for collecting unpaid user fees at state parks. A lot of people are anticipating, to offer one example, a special-interest license plate.

AB 1589 also allows taxpayers to redirect portions of their tax refunds to the California State Parks Protection Fund in exchange for an annual state park day-use access pass. AB 1478, by Bob Bloomenfield (D-Woodland Hills) appropriates $10 million from the fund for park maintenance projects and $10 million as matching funds for private grants for parks.

AB 1478 is the more interesting bill for Bob Patrie of the Coe Park Preservation Fund. You may recall that organization wrangled a whopping $1 million of private money to keep their beloved local park open another three years.

hdpublicplaces-mod“AB1478 directly impacts our relationship with the DPR,” Patrie writes. He notes that half of the unreported $20.5 million in the State Parks and Recreation Fund will go towards the $1 billion deferred maintenance backlog,  “rather than being entirely spent on keeping the threatened 70 parks open – a bad idea. The smell of money in the water.”

In late July, the Fund and its sister non-profit, the Pine Ridge Association, issued a press release that more-or-less demanded the state not use the “found” money for purposes other than state parks…a temptation in these budget-strapped times.

“There is no doubt, that many of these funds were collected by the DPR from California citizens visiting and enjoying our beautiful state parks,” writes Daniel McCranie, CPPF treasurer and board member (and also the guy who wrote the biggest check to keep Coe open.) “It is both logical and morally correct that these discovered funds be allocated to the department from which they were collected – the California State Parks.”

It takes a team to keep a state park like Henry Coe open. Ranger Cameron Bowers and non-profit advocate Bob Patrie (Credit: KQED/Rachael Myrow)

AB 1478 also prohibits the Department of Parks and Recreation from closing or even proposing the closure of a state park until mid-2014.

“For over a year, we were told that there was no alternative [to park closures],” Blumenfield writes KQED.  “We were told park closures were a necessary sacrifice as the state faces tough budget challenges. Californians responded by rallying to raise funds to keep them open.  This inspiring accomplishment cannot be soiled by the isolated acts of rogue bureaucrats who concealed over $50 million.”

About that figure…could be more, could be less. Over the weekend, the Sacramento Bee’s Matthew Weiser wrote that the figure most everybody is bandying about ($54 million) … may not be so correct.

About $20 million was in the State Parks and Recreation Fund, as previously mentioned; the rest in “a dedicated pot of money known as the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund.”

Well, Finance Department chief deputy director Michael Cohen says his agency is no longer sure how much money was hidden in the OHV fund, and that answer will have to wait on three separate investigations by the attorney general, the state auditor and the Legislature. Those could take the rest of the year.

The OHV fund serves the state’s eight parks dedicated to off-roaders, among other things. The OHV fund has routinely maintained a large balance. Parks officials have said this was to keep money in reserve to acquire land for new off-roading parks. “Yet the department has not opened a new off-roading park in 15 years,” Reiser notes dryly.

Off-roading groups are understandably bitter about this state of affairs – not to mention the $34 million – if that’s what it is.

“Is that all?” asks John Stewart, a consultant for the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs.

The Governor’s office hasn’t taken a position yet on either bill, or indicated whether he plans to sign one or both, sometime in September.

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Rachael Myrow

From KQED’s Bureau in San Jose, Rachael Myrow’s mandate is to cover politics, economics, technology and culture in a region that stretches from Burlingame to Edenvale to Fremont. She also covers food and blogs for Bay Area Bites. Her posting as Silicon Valley Correspondent follows more than seven years as the daily host of KQED's California Report, broadcast on NPR affiliates throughout the state. She continues to guest host The California Report Magazine and Forum, and files as a freelancer for NPR and PRI’s The World. Before KQED, she worked for Marketplace and KPCC in Los Angeles.

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