State Sen. Steve Knight, R-Antelope Valley, introduced two senate bills that would protect California taxpayers’ money by better regulating the use of state funds, state officials said Friday.
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Knight, who represents the Santa Clarita Valley and other communities in the 21st Senate District, introduced the bills in response to a recent report by the State Auditor’s office that confirms the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) illegally diverted $3.7 million of taxpayer funds into a hidden account called the Wildland Fire Fund, according to a news release by Knight’s office.
The new legislation, Senate Bills 1074 and 1075, would punish state employees if they hide state funds from the public, ensure state resources are properly spent and require all funds in the secret account be returned to the state treasury, said state officials.
“This was a clear abuse of the public trust,” Knight said. “State employees set up an off-the-books slush fund and used the taxpayer’s money for equipment that is now missing and a conference at a Pismo Beach resort, among other misuses. These measures are the first step in restoring the public’s trust. We have to ensure this type of waste and abuse never happens again. If it does, public servants that abuse their power and violate the law will now be subject to real consequences.”
In addition to the Cal Fire audit, $54 million was found in a State Parks hidden fund last year, indicating that the occurrence of slush funds is increasing in state government, according to the news release.
Senate Bill 1074 would actively prevent the misuse of taxpayers’ money by adding criminal punishments for state employees who intentionally divert public money into hidden private accounts, an act that is currently illegal but has no punishment for those responsible, state officials said.
The bill would make such acts a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail or a $10,000 fine.
“Cal Fire controls $1.3 billion in taxpayer dollars and should be held to the highest of standards. Californians deserve better than to find out from the local newspaper that their government is misusing their hard-earned money. The legislature needs to be a better watchdog to uncover and prevent improper and illegal behavior by state government officials,” Knight said.
Under the recommendation from the State Auditor, Senate Bill 1075 would direct any funds recovered by Cal Fire’s Civil Cost Recovery Program back into the State Treasury and require that all funds remaining in the off-the-books Wildland Fire Fund be returned to the general fund where they belong, according to the news release.
“This was a major issue. There was $3.7 million put away into the Wildland Fire Fund and that was not something that we accounted for,” Knight said. “Several groups came out and said if this has happened with one audit, we want to have something in place for when we have this problem in the future.”
Both bills are currently awaiting referral from the Senate Rules Committee to their first policy committee, state officials confirmed, and action can be expected in March or April.
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