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Bill expands state auditor's powers in wake of Bell scandal

Gov. Jerry Brown approves broad new authority to investigate the misuse of taxpayer funds by cities and counties. He also signs a bill allowing nonprofits to operate some state parks facing closure.

October 05, 2011|By Patrick McGreevy and Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
  • Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed a measure that would have allowed child-care workers to unionize, wrote in his veto message that California, like the nation itself, is facing huge budget challenges. Gven that reality, I am reluctant to embark on a program of this magnitude and potential cost.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed a measure that would have allowed child-care… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday gave the state auditor broad new powers to investigate the misuse of taxpayer funds by cities and counties, signing legislation created in the wake of the financial scandal in the city of Bell.

The governor also approved a bill allowing nonprofits to take over the operation of state parks that otherwise would be closed because of budget woes and a clutch of proposals intended to protect children. He vetoed a measure that would have allowed child-care workers to unionize.

The Bell-related measure by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), whose district includes the tiny city, allows the auditor to launch an examination of local government agencies, including special districts, to determine whether they are at risk of fraud, waste or mismanagement.

"It is critical for the state to have the tools and authority to help flag gross mismanagement at the local level," said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown.

The state auditor has an existing program to identify agencies at high risk of fraud or waste, but the law has limited it to state functions. The auditor could investigate local agencies only if directed to do so by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, as the panel did recently for the city of Vernon.

In Bell, eight officials, including the city manager and council members, were arrested last year on charges of looting the city treasury to boost their pay and benefits.

"Through this measure we are creating accountability and ensuring that taxpayers are not left holding the bag," Lara said.

The law, AB 187, will take effect Jan. 1, as will most of those Brown signed Tuesday. He signed 25 bills and vetoed seven.

He approved SB 929, by state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), which will require any child riding in a car to be in a booster seat until he or she is 8 years old or reaches a height of 4 feet, 9 inches. Current law requires children to be in boosters until they are 6 or weigh 60 pounds.

Brown also signed a ban on the manufacture or sale of baby cups and bottles that contain the chemical abisphenol-A, commonly known as BPA. Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey) introduced AB 1319 out of concern that the chemical is toxic and creates a health risk.

And the governor put his signature on a measure requiring school districts that offer sports programs to develop a process for identifying cases in which children suffer concussions and to require a parent to give written permission for a student athlete to return to the lineup. Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi (D-Hayward) introduced AB 25.

The parks measure, AB 42 by Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), came in the wake of budget cuts this year that included plans to close 70 of the state's 278 state parks. Nonprofit groups are already lining up to keep some of them open.

The Valley of the Moon Natural History Assn. is considering taking over Jack London State Historic Park, and the Napa Valley State Parks Assn. is weighing whether to operate Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, according to Roy Stearns, a spokesman for the state Parks Department.

Brown also signed a measure allowing the state to suspend the driver's licenses and professional permits of the 1,000 Californians who owe the most in delinquent state taxes.

The Franchise Tax Board and the state Board of Equalization periodically publish lists of tax scofflaws, who often include Hollywood celebrities, business leaders and athletes. The current lists can be found on the panels' websites.

"It's time that the worst tax debtors in our state know we mean business," said Assemblyman Henry Perea (D-Fresno), author of AB 1424. The law takes effect July 1.

Brown dealt a blow to labor with his rejection of a measure that would have allowed up to 100,000 child-care workers to unionize. The governor said he was sympathetic to the stated goals of AB 101: to improve working conditions for those who take care of children.

But "California, like the nation itself, is facing huge budget challenges," he wrote in his veto message. "Given that reality, I am reluctant to embark on a program of this magnitude and potential cost."

The bill's author, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), expressed disappointment Tuesday, saying, "This bill would have given child-care workers a voice in their workplace, and I will continue to fight to give them a seat at the table."

Brown also rejected a proposal by Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, to allow that county to assess its own vehicle tax if approved by voters. The governor wanted to extend higher vehicle-tax rates statewide as part of his budget this year but could not find the required Republican support.

"Before we embark on a piecemeal approach for one city, we should try to fashion a broader revenue solution to our state's fiscal crisis," he wrote, explaining his dismissal of SB 223.

Brown vetoed a proposal that the state pick up the tab for more than $1 million in damages in Del Norte County from the March tsunami that devastated parts of Japan and another that would have allowed state welfare recipients to own cars of significant value. Currently, those who receive benefits may own cars with a maximum value of $4,650.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

anthony.york@latimes.com

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