The grand act of atonement that California state leaders signed into law to correct a financial scandal at the state’s parks department may not turn out to be the healing gesture it first appeared to be.

As reported by The Sacramento Bee, the new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, AB 1478, allocates $10 million to provide “dollar-for-dollar” matching grants for private donations to the state parks system. The intent, in part, was to reassure wary parks supporters that at least some of the $54 million in “hidden money” discovered in the scandal would go back to the parks and not be diverted for some other government purpose.

The $10 million was appropriated from the State Parks and Recreation Fund, one of two special funds where California Department of Parks and Recreation officials were found to be hiding the $54 million for many years. Another $10 million, and other monies, are targeted to cover operating and capital costs.

This vast amount of hidden money, first reported by The Bee on July 20, would have been more than adequate to cover the $22 million in budget cuts that required the state to close 70 parks. Yet department leaders kept the money hidden even as they signed complex and unprecedented contracts with local governments and small nonprofits that agreed to operate the threatened parks.

Many of those groups viewed AB 1478 as a reprieve – a chance to use some of the hidden money to cover the enormous costs they incurred by agreeing to rescue the parks.

But none of the $10 million will be given to them in cash. The state’s lawyers determined that doing so amounts to a “gift of state funds” that would violate the California Constitution.

Instead, rules released by state parks on Nov. 13 specify that grants will be provided only “in kind” – meaning use of state employees or services – to match a financial donation.

“My position is it’s going to undermine the partnerships, for obvious reasons,” said Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, which took over Annadel State Park near Santa Rosa when it was threatened with closure. “We need a dollar-for-dollar match to pay our staff to operate the parks.”

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