- Associated Press - Thursday, June 23, 2016

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California lawmakers on Thursday proposed a $3 billion bond to appear on November ballots that would pay for improvements at state and local parks, saying that green spaces are a natural way to improve public safety, health and air quality.

It would join a crowded ballot that is expected to include dozens of other measures.

The Assembly approved the measure on a 55-14 vote, with six Republicans joining 49 Democrats in favor of AB2444. The Senate must also approve it by June 30 for it to appear on the statewide ballot.

Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, said the funding is “absolutely imperative to keeping the parks system moving forward.”

“In some communities there are just no parks at all and in the state park system there are also enormous needs,” Goldstein said.

Bill author Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, and other supporters said many local government agencies cannot afford to maintain their outdoor spaces.

“We are still coming up short when it comes to the expansion and improvements within parks and forest communities in the state,” Garcia said. “That’s why part of this bond is aiming at tackling the absence of parks within disadvantaged communities.”

Up to 20 percent of the funds would be reserved for low-income communities and nearly $1 billion would be used to develop neighborhood parks in areas without them.

Another $1.25 billion would be available for improvements to existing local parks, open spaces and river parkways, as well as to aid the work of nature conservancies and regional park programs. That includes at least $10 million for each of the park districts of the Central Valley, Central Coast, Coachella Valley, Inland Empire, East San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego.

More than $600 million would go to projects that address the effects of climate change, reduce fire risks, restore streams and protect wildlife habitats.

The state Department of Parks and Recreation would oversee about $2 billion of the fund, at least $280 million of which must be used to address a backlog of deferred maintenance.

“The deferred maintenance list includes the very unsexy stuff like water and restrooms all the way up to the need for new visitor services, interpretive centers, historic restoration, new trails, all kinds of things,” Goldstein said.

The parks department came under fire in 2012 for hiding nearly $54 million during a budget crisis that threatened to close parks.

Garcia said he’s confident in the changes the department has made since then and noted that the money would ultimately be used by local governments, not the state agency.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, said safe outdoor spaces are critical to lawmakers’ broader goals of helping working families, particularly in communities where parents are afraid to send their children outside.

“It’s essential that, in those toughest neighborhoods, that we have places like community gardens and parks and open spaces for our grandparents and our parents and our children to be able to enjoy it,” he said.

One of 69 amendments added Thursday carves out $35 million for urban areas to increase access to the outdoors.

Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, opposed the measure, saying it’s irresponsible to issue bonds rather than funding such projects through the state’s general fund budget.

“We don’t need to be going into additional debt for those programs,” Jones said.

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