Wyatt Buchanan
Updated 10:28 p.m., Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sacramento –The scandal over a stash of $54 million in California’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which led to the resignation of the department’s director and firing of a deputy on Friday, will likely create problems for Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax measure in November, political observers said.

The governor used the threat of park closures as part of the narrative of the state’s desperate financial crisis even as some critics said it was merely a strategy to inflict unnecessary pain on the public to drum up support for new taxes. Now, the admission by top-level state officials that they were unaware the parks department had tens of millions in extra funds could undermine Brown’s pitch to voters that the state needs more of their tax dollars.

“It just reinforces the image that people in state government are playing games with our tax money and that raises the question of whether we should send them more of our tax money,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.

While Brown’s administration originally called for closing 70 parks to save $22 million, parks advocates and lawmakers have worked doggedly to find alternatives and now only one has actually closed, although the threat of closures in the next fiscal year remains.

But that possibility has now lost its political power, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a longtime state political observer and a senior fellow in the School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California.

“It’s gone. The ability to use the closing of state parks, which Californians can relate to, as a reason to pass the tax simply isn’t there anymore,” she said.

Worse, others said, is that public cynicism over government’s ability to collect and wisely spend tax dollars likely will deepen over the scandal and provide more fodder for Brown’s opponents who are working to convince voters to reject Proposition 30, the governor’s tax measure.

The parks debacle exploded Friday when Ruth Coleman, director of the parks department, abruptly resigned over revelations that the department had $54 million that it failed to report to the Department of Finance for more than a decade.

State officials disclosed the finding in the wake of a Sacramento Bee investigation of a parks official, who has since left the department, conducting a secret and unauthorized program to allow employees to sell unused vacation time to the state.

Now the governor has called for an even deeper look into state finances, and the attorney general is investigating the parks funding.

Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, had worked to stop park closures as many of those scheduled to cease operations were in her district that stretches from the Bay Area and along the North Coast. She said the scandal “betrays the public’s trust” and she thinks taxpayers will remember it much longer than other revelations of government misdeeds.

“Californians have always loved their parks, so to have this level of betrayal on something that is so iconic to Californians is worse than the average betrayal. It hits us in our hearts,” Evans said, adding that it could be “potentially a huge blow” to the governor’s efforts to pass a tax increase.

Prop. 30 would raise the sales tax for four years and the income tax on high earners for seven years and generate at least $47 billion, according to the Department of Finance.

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