Disclosures last week of state parks officials cooking the books and making unauthorized cash payouts for unused vacation leave reveal alarming systemic problems that go beyond one state agency.
Gov. Jerry Brown's misguided pursuit of high-speed rail and his abandonment of meaningful pension reform had already cast doubts on his claims of fiscal frugality. Now the scandals within the state Department of Parks and Recreation threaten to undermine his little bit of remaining credibility if he doesn't address the larger issues they raise.
It couldn't come at a worse time -- just as the governor intensifies his campaign for Proposition 30, which would raise $9 billion annually through a four-year quarter-cent sales tax increase and by hiking income taxes on the wealthy for seven years.
To be sure, Brown seems to be cleaning house within the parks department. Director Ruth Coleman resigned last week, acting Chief Deputy Director Michael Harris was fired and the person who masterminded the vacation buyback scam was demoted and subsequently resigned.
But that's not nearly enough.
Thanks to investigative reporting from the Sacramento Bee, we know the parks department hid nearly $54 million in assets as it threatened that budget cuts would force park closures. The threat was used to raise private and other government money, and to extort public support for the governor's tax measure.
The bigger question is how $54 million was
The secret vacation buyback highlights another huge problem. Most state employees can accrue unlimited sick leave and up to 640 hours of unused vacation time. Upon retirement, they can apply the unused sick leave toward their years of service when computing their pensions and cash out the vacation time.
In this case, 56 active employees, including 18 managers, received cash payments for vacation time in excess of the limit rather than taking the time off. Ironically, these workers were in the parks department's administrative services division, which includes personnel and accounting.
While the amount in this case is relatively small, $271,000, it highlights a much larger problem permeating state government: The accrual of unused time creates debt the state must eventually pay. The Bee calculated two years ago that the cash value of accumulated time was about $2.75 billion. The paper also reported that California had the most generous leave accrual policies of 21 states in a national survey.
These practices must end. Vacation time, intended to rejuvenate workers, should be taken in the year it's earned, or very soon after. Sick leave should be insurance against illness. Neither should be a supplementary form of retirement savings.
From pensions to leave accruals, it's time for the governor to rein in excessive benefits that push costs onto future taxpayers.
In short, the time for talk is past, only some actual leadership can fix this mess.