Imagine California voters approving a program that generates lots of tax money, but has little oversight and even less accountability. For even the casual follower of state government, this is hardly a stretch. It is more like same song, different verse.
But, according to a state audit, that is exactly the circumstance with the revenues derived from 2004's Proposition 63, which levied a 1 percent tax on residents making more than $1 million a year as a means of funding mental health programs.
Prop. 63 was the progeny of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who has long been a mental health advocate in his public career. It created the Mental Health Services Act, which sent the tax money to counties for administration and created an oversight commission to monitor use of those funds.
But state auditor Elaine Howle said the commission and associated state agencies have not adequately monitored the county programs.
"Because of the minimal oversight (the Department of) Mental Health and the Accountability Commission provided in the past, the state has little current assurance that the funds directed to counties -- almost $7.4 billion from fiscal years 2006-07 through 2011-12 -- have been used effectively and appropriately," Howle wrote in the cover letter to the audit.
This is hardly unexpected. It is one reason we recommended against the 2004 proposal. Be that as it may, the proposition was passed and this audit should provide at least a framework for fixing the problem.
Over the years there have been many news reports about questionable expenses, such as yoga, gardening and public relations efforts, often at the expense of addressing the problems of the seriously mentally ill.
The audit does not address such matters. Instead, it concentrated on the bureaucratic relationship between the state and county governments.
It found the state did not: conduct program evaluations, on-site reviews of county mental health programs or ensure that counties reported required data. It also found that the state only recently established a framework for evaluating programs. That would be nine years after the initiative passed.
The report recommends that the state conduct on-site visits to programs, improve data-gathering efforts and do a better job of explaining the data to the public.
Those are fine ideas, but by far the most powerful recommendation is for the Legislature to craft a bill that would allow the state to withhold Prop. 63 money from counties that don't comply with reporting requirements. Nothing primes the engine of a bureaucracy like the threat of losing funding.
These are all problems that can and should be fixed quickly so that the money can be used to help those in the most need.