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Lawmakers request audit of specialty plate program

Posted: August 2, 2012 11:30 a.m.
Updated: August 2, 2012 11:30 a.m.
 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A bipartisan group of lawmakers has formally requested a detailed review of the California specialty license plate program, the first in the program's 20-year history.

The request comes in response to an investigation by The Associated Press that found little oversight of the $250 million raised since the program was authorized.

The AP also found that Gov. Jerry Brown and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had taken $3 million raised by a memorial plate created in honor of the victims of the 2001 terror attacks. The money was used to help close the state's budget deficit.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, and Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, asked the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to authorize a review of the memorial plate program and a random sample of the 10 other specialty plates, which include the Lake Tahoe and California Firefighter plate programs.

"If people broke the law and moved the money around in a way that was contrary to statue, they should be either disciplined or terminated," DeSaulnier said. "As public agencies, we don't have a lot of credibility to begin with and these are the things that lead to even less credibility."

His office sent a copy of the letter to the AP on Wednesday.

In May, Brown asked the administration's Department of Finance to audit the plates program. He said he would use the results of the review, which is ongoing, to decide when to pay back the $3 million loan from the memorial plate fund.

Specialty plates have been a boon for public agencies and nonprofit organizations since the Legislature authorized the program in 1992 as a fundraising tool.

California has 10 special-interest license plates that support causes including child safety and the upkeep of Lake Tahoe, with an 11th, supporting agricultural education, on the way.

The AP review found there is virtually no independent oversight of how organizations spend the money. Organizations and agencies participating in the specialty plate program must report annually to the state Department of Motor Vehicles about money collected and the percentage spent to promote the specialty plates, which isn't supposed to exceed 25 percent of the revenue.

Other than that, there is no direct supervision of the programs. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has never examined the program, nor has the state auditor's office.

In the case of the memorial plates, the revenue was supposed to provide scholarships to the children of California residents who perished in the attacks and to help fund anti-terrorism efforts. But only $20,000 of the $15 million collected has been distributed in scholarships.

The AP reported in June that dozens of people who appear to have been eligible for the scholarships were unaware of the program. Several, including an aspiring lawyer and a college freshman, are hoping they may still be able to take advantage of the program, which closed to new applicants in 2005.

DeSaulnier said he hopes these family members will benefit from the audit.

"This is an obvious case where there's a need, there's an incredible benefit, and that's why people paid for the plate," he said. "To think that the money would go anywhere else is inconceivable to me."

The committee will consider ordering the audit during a hearing next week.

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