SACRAMENTO (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown announced Tuesday that he had signed several bills to keep California's state parks open and ensure greater spending oversight after a scandal in which parks officials hid $54 million.
Together, the bills establish a two-year moratorium on park closures, provide about $30 million in funding and give the department that manages California's 278 state parks new fundraising tools.
AB1478 by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Woodland Hills, splits $30 million to help state parks at risk of closure stay open, complete overdue maintenance, and provide $10 million to match donations from private groups and local governments.
Department of Parks and Recreation Director Ruth Coleman resigned and a senior parks official was terminated this summer after it was revealed that some employees kept $54 million hidden in two special funds for more than a decade, even as dozens of parks were threatened with closure.
Brown's signature on the bills was a first step toward restoring public confidence in the management of parks, said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation, which had rallied to save some of the sites. Nonprofit groups and local governments helped raise money and in some cases assumed responsibility for keeping the 70 state parks operating past a July 1 closure deadline.
"Putting this bill into law is a sign of good faith on the part of California's government that all the hard work of communities, organizations and donors across the state who stepped up to support their parks is recognized and appreciated," Goldstein said in a statement.
Before the discovery of a $20 million surplus in the Parks and Recreation Fund and nearly $34 million in a separate off-highway vehicle fund, the Democratic governor had proposed closing 70 state parks to save $33 million over two years. The move prompted a scramble by nonprofits and local governments, some of which rely on income and tourism traffic from the parks.
Among the sites slated to close were the Governor's and Leland Stanford mansions in Sacramento, the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, and the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. The closings were to have spanned the state and include popular recreation spots near cities, such as China Camp State Park north of San Francisco, and isolated nature spots including Plumas-Eureka and South Yuba River state parks.
The new laws also give the State Park and Recreation Commission more authority to oversee the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Blumenfield said Californians were deceived by rogue bureaucrats.
"My heart goes out to parks advocates who feel burned by this fiasco," Blumenfield said in a news release. "They heroically raised millions to help keep parks open. ... This bill was designed to ensure that a lot of good will come from their hard work."
This summer's scandal came as Brown was promoting his November ballot initiative to temporarily raise income and sales taxes, dealing a public relations blow to a governor who has sought to streamline government and cut costs.
Brown on Tuesday also signed AB1589 by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, which gives the parks department new fundraising tools, including allowing Californians to donate to the department by checking a box on their income tax returns.
It also requires the department to come up with a plan to increase revenues and maximize the fees it collects from parks patrons, which could mean installing credit card machines, imposing peak-time pricing, or introducing a new statewide annual parks pass.
Another provision that establishes a specialty state parks license plate was transferred into the budget Brown signed in June.
Earlier this month, Brown signed another bill stemming from the parks scandal to potentially detect hidden money by ensuring that finance officers work from the same set of figures. It requires the California state controller's office and Department of Finance to compare their annual reports detailing how much money is in more than 500 special funds, after a subsequent review found $3.9 billion in accounting discrepancies between the controller and finance department.