Of Obesity, Bridges and Peanuts

Have California school officials found their own bizarre way to support Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity? What else could possibly explain their skimming of at least $170 million -- and possibly much more -- from federal funds supplied to provide nutritional lunches to the state’s poorest children? The just-released findings by state auditors show the biggest offender is the Los Angeles Unified School District, having misappropriated $158 million. For LAUSD observers this comes as small surprise considering the district’s abysmal record of managing its funds.

A trustee for Santa Ana Unified School district, which has been ordered to repay $2.7 million to the Student Meal Fund, tried to excuse his district’s action by saying, “If the law was as simple as, you can do this or you can’t, we would understand it.” The comment is a reminder of the huge disconnect between many government officials and the general public. Most regular folks understand that it is wrong to take food from hungry children without having to be told -- the few who don’t appreciate the difference between right and wrong usually end up being sent to prison.

While we are looking at skimming, it has recently been revealed that Cal Fire has been hiding $3.6 million. Incidentally, this is the same agency that is imposing an illegal fire tax over which the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has filed a class action lawsuit. This latest revelation comes on the heels of the State Parks Department scandal involving $54 million in hidden funds. When officials are interviewed they reveal the tendency to hide extra money is the result of their fear that if the word gets out that they are flush with cash, Sacramento lawmakers will cut their budget. After all, where would these bureaucrats be if the extra money were spent on other needy programs or, heaven forbid, returned to taxpayers?

To “skimming” and “hiding” let’s add outright waste. A shining example is the $10 million dollar contract Caltrans signed with a public relations firm on behalf of -- wait for it -- a bridge! That’s right, a state agency was hiring spin doctors to put the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the best possible light. (What, like commuters have a choice with some competing bridge?) Looks like it is embarrassed Caltrans officials, who cancelled the contract when it became public late last year, who now need a PR makeover.

There are always those close to government who downgrade the importance of government waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer money when confronted with examples that amount to only a matter of millions, not billions of dollars. Governor Brown stated that he found the story regarding Cal Fire’s hiding money to be “boring.” Even more telling was the comment by a governor some years ago when at a meeting, the subject of a wasteful program that amounted to close to $20 million was raised. “It’s peanuts,” he responded. The problem is there is evidence that there are boxcar loads of these “peanuts” for which every Californian is paying.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers' rights.