SACRAMENTO — California's state parks department will be subject to an independent audit to examine how and why nearly $54 million in two special funds went unreported even as budget cuts were threatening to close 70 parks.
The revelation of the hidden money earlier this summer threatens Democratic hopes of passing a ballot measure that would increase taxes by undermining the public's trust in how state government handles tax money.
Democrats favor the review in hopes of restoring voters' confidence, while many Republican lawmakers say they would like a broader review to see if state government has other hidden pots of cash.
The Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the audit.
Reports of the underreported $54 million surfaced after The Sacramento Bee reported that some Department of Parks and Recreation administrators had taken unauthorized cash-outs of vacation time worth more than $271,000.
The hidden parks money prompted a review of 560 state special funds by the governor's department of finance and a separate investigation into the parks department itself. The Attorney General is also looking into the scandal, and an Assembly budget subcommittee is expected to take up the special funds issue Thursday.
But lawmakers said these efforts were not enough.
"There is a whole culture of deception and entitlement far greater than we anticipated within the state parks department," said Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin. "Californians feel betrayed, and this audit is essential to gaining back their trust."
A bipartisan group of 13 lawmakers requested the parks audit, and it appeared to have unanimous support. Interim parks director Janelle Beland spoke briefly to express her intent to cooperate with the investigation.
Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises money to benefit state parks, said she hoped the audit would head off any backlash from donors.
"California state parks is one of the only state agencies that has been able to rely on the largess of the public," she said. "This audit will go a long way toward rebuilding the trust and loyalty of the public that it deserves."
The audit is expected to take seven months, but State Auditor Elaine Howle said her office would be able to deliver its findings related to the hidden funds by January, the start of the next legislative session.
Lawmakers denied a request from two Republican lawmakers to audit the oversight of the proposed $68 billion high-speed rail system that is being pushed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
Earlier in the day, the committee approved an audit of the California specialty license plate program. An Associated Press investigation earlier this year found little oversight of the $250 million raised through the sale of the plates. The investigation revealed that Brown and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took $3 million raised by a memorial license plate dedicated to victims of the 9/11 attacks and used it to help close the state's budget deficit.
Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, said he hoped the audit would help ensure that California children who lost parents in the attacks are able to benefit from the special plates as lawmakers intended.