Stop Legislating, Start Auditing!

Monday, July 30, 2012

California does not have a problem of revenues, there's plenty coming in each year. It has a spending problem, and last week's exposure of financial scandal at the Department of Parks and Recreation constitutes the latest slap in the face to taxpayers.

The head of the Department of Parks and Recreation, Ruth Coleman, stepped down amid reports that approximately 55 agency employees hatched a scheme to illegally pay themselves and others immediate cash payments for unused vacation time. Over $271,000 was paid to these state employees who coded their payments as overtime and hid it from scrutiny by asking for payments with simple post-it notes.  In addition, the agency hid over $54 million of state money from auditors and oversight committees over a 12 year period.

In an over-regulated state like California, I argue that citizens would be better served by a Legislature which would spend the majority of its time overseeing the agencies of government rather than introducing and voting on 7000 bills to create more laws. By doing so, situations like the Parks scandal, would be prevented from happening and the bureaucracy could be effectively reined in.  Imagine how much better off our state would be if all the resources used to hold superficial hearings, cursory analysis and votes on unnecessary laws would be spent holding government agencies accountable. Perhaps your next experience with the Department of Motor Vehicles would be a lot more enjoyable, or funds within the Department of Mental Health, intended for those most vulnerable would reach them exclusively and not be wasted along the way through fraud and abuse.

The Parks incident is only the tip of the iceberg as there are much larger agencies conducting themselves in a similarly irresponsible and dishonest manner. Just a few years back, we discovered even greater audacity and abuse in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the Department of Mental Health. These agencies redirected $100 million of their budgets to pay overtime and an even more vast accumulation of annual leave than has now been disclosed at Parks. It also came to our attention that CDCR misused the Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board (VCGCB) to transfer those funds, circumventing all legislative oversight.

Even more audacious is the abuse of the sense of pride and love that Californians have for their state parks in an attempt to justify a tax increase. We have been told that 70 parks would close as a result of a $22 million budget cut. Private citizens, public officials and charitable organizations worked diligently to solicit donations and support to offset these cuts and save nearly all of these parks. Now we find out that State Parks has lied to the public and their elected representatives. Not only did they have enough money secretly squirreled away, they had enough to fund the cuts TWICE OVER.

This is far more than the abuse and malfeasance of a few bureaucrats. This is a long established, systemic practice in most all agencies. It's the job of the Governor and your Legislature to be accountable and to wrest control back from obscure bureaucrats and out of control agencies. This current Parks mess confirms we don't need $45 billion in new sales and income taxes, nor a state budget packed with new fees, fines and fund shifts. We need real legislative oversight of state agencies, budget and pension reform, a spending cap and a solid budget reserve. I believe that zero-based budgeting would also be a powerful tool in preventing this type of incredible financial abuse by state agencies.

In fact, while we have asked each year for detailed auditing of state parks to the unit level, it has not happened.  Every year, parks and museums bring in no revenue yet demand maintenance funding.  Patches of green grass that nobody uses drain up to $500,000 each in costs to the state; and now we learn that it might all be fraudulent.

Once again, we are shown why the tax propositions in November must not pass and why we cannot trust the state with more of the taxpayers' hard earned money. In times like these, when California faces a steep budget deficit, it is the duty of the Legislature to hold agencies of government accountable and to expose waste and abuse. As Vice-Chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, I will continue to take that responsibility seriously.