Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to pretend it was no big deal. About the $54 million state parks surplus that went unreported for a dozen years, Brown joked Wednesday, "Hallelujah! More money is better than less money."
Nice try. This particular dance is what we expect from a politician who hopes voters will approve a tax measure in November. But Brown knows the political damage is done.
Anyone who worked to support parks in Sonoma County (or even wrote columns in support of local parks) knows the feeling. People feel disheartened. There is a sense of betrayal.
Consider Deb McGauley's letter to the editor on Thursday. The Santa Rosa woman recounted how her family contributed money to the state for a picnic table that honors her parents' memory.
That picnic table is located at a state beach now closed nine months a year, supposedly because the state parks department was broke.
Then McGauley opens the newspaper last week to learn that the department is sitting on $54 million. (The San Jose Mercury News on Friday reported that two groups who made large donations are asking for their money back — or a commitment that the $54 million will be spent on parks.)
In her Close to Home commentary, also on Thursday, Lauren Dixon, deputy director of the Parks Alliance for Sonoma County, reminded us that state government has managed to deliver us the worst of both worlds. The financial problems for state parks will continue, but it will now be more difficult to solve them.
"We remain faced with the same question," Dixon wrote. "What happens next year and 10 years from now? We need a sustainable solution to support our parks."
"We were on the brink of doing something transformative in Sonoma County when this happened," Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, told the Sacramento Bee. "This has so many layers of destruction."
Dixon and Hart have been leaders in efforts to create a new model for managing and sustaining parks in Sonoma County.
"This has been an outrage to the public, and we feel outraged as well," Carolyn Schoff, president of the California League of Parks Associations, told the Associated Press. "Even if the money is returned back, it's not resolving the crisis, and now the public trust has been betrayed."
Somehow, state government accomplished what seemed impossible, which is to make Californians even less trusting of government than they were before.
Within hours of the first reports, Sonoma County officials pulled the plug on consideration of a November tax measure in support of parks. No one wanted to be caught asking voters to bail out a state government that claimed to be broke and wasn't.
The damage, of course, won't be limited to state parks. How many times have we heard groups complain that government has plenty of money?
You don't need more taxes, they say, you have lots of money.
You could repair all those roads, save parks and restore schools, pay higher salaries and do a hundred other things, they say, if you really wanted to do them.
For all those folks, the $54 million in unreported assets becomes the latest excuse for opposing almost everything (except the expenditures important to them). Hey, government has the money somewhere, and besides, it can't be trusted.