California Finance Department’s audit highlights how hard it is to reconcile budget numbers

From Sacramento Bee:

In 2004, California voters authorized $15 billion in bonds to erase a massive budget deficit at the urging of lawmakers and newly elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The state still maintains a special bank account that collects sales taxes to retire the debt from nearly a decade ago. At the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, the Fiscal Recovery Fund had $885.2 million, according to the state controller’s office.

But the Department of Finance, which answers to Gov. Jerry Brown, showed only $205.6 million.

The nearly $680 million gap is an example of how the two fiscal offices use different accounting methods, a divergence that drew scrutiny after the state Resources Agency revealed that the state Department of Parks and Recreation had hidden nearly $54 million from budget officials.

The accounting split has been taken for granted around budget circles for years. Lawmakers and state officials raised few alarms in the past whenever the controller’s data varied from the Finance Department’s because the differences weren’t known or were presumed to be legitimate in nature.

But the parks revelation has forced the Finance Department to audit 560 special funds that spent $33.4 billion in 2010-11 to determine in how many instances the gaps are reasonable. The department expects to release its findings next week.

“It’s very complicated to reconcile these accounting things,” said Jason Sisney, who tracks revenue for the Legislative Analyst’s Office. “Even now, when looking at the controller’s document and comparing it to the governor’s budget, when you see a different number it doesn’t tell you a whole lot.”

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