Californians should be outraged by a recent state auditor’s report showing that counties have failed to spend $2.5 billion in taxpayer money that is intended to help the mentally ill.

So much for the 2004 promise to voters that the Proposition 63 tax on millionaires would keep the mentally ill “off the streets, out of the hospital and out of jail.”

But don’t pin the blame entirely on county officials. The problem begins with the volatile nature of the tax, which raises $1 billion-$2 billion a year. The massive fluctuations create budgeting headaches for counties that can’t rely on a reliable source of income to fund programs.

Litigation over use of the money has contributed to the confusion. And a lack of leadership and oversight at the state level contributes to what can best be described as an ongoing mess. Fourteen years after Prop. 63 was passed, state officials do not have the necessary data to determine which Prop. 63 programs are producing promised results, nor even timely reports on what money is being spent where by counties.

It must be noted that a large percentage of the money raised by Prop. 63 funding has gone to programs helping tens of thousands of mentally ill patients in California. The outrage is that the unspent money is needed now for the nearly 20 percent of Californians with mental issues.

It’s needed for programs with proven records. The treatment success rate for mental illness is roughly 70 percent, helping keep the mentally ill in their jobs and out of hospital emergency rooms and county jails.

Former state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, now mayor of Sacramento, authored Prop. 63 after being continually frustrated by the Legislature’s failure to sufficiently fund mental health programs. Then, when California faced a budget crunch in 2012, the Legislature took $792 million away from its mental health programs. Ouch.

Four years later, state Senate President Kevin de Leon proposed a $2 billion bond, financed by Prop. 63 funds, to provide housing for mentally ill people living on the streets. After Gov. Jerry Brown signed the legislation, Sacramento attorney Mary Ann Bernard filed a lawsuit, saying that housing construction wasn’t a legal use of the ballot measure’s funds, creating additional confusion about the future of Prop. 63 funding. The issue is still tied up in the courts.

Given all the uncertainty and the potential to use the Prop. 63 funds to provide housing for mentally ill people living on the streets, it’s no surprise that counties haven’t spent all their available funds. According to the audit, for the fiscal year 2015-16, the nine Bay Area counties were holding on to $387.7 million of the $2.5 billion of unspent money. The counties are Alameda ($104.7 million), Contra Costa ($45.7 million), Marin ($18.6 million), Napa ($3.4 million), San Francisco ($22.4 million), San Mateo ($18.4 million), Santa Clara ($133.2 million), Santa Cruz ($15.3 million) and Solano ($27.8 million).

California’s mental health program needs an overhaul with a more-stable, responsive, focused funding strategy and the necessary oversight to accomplish its goals. Californians and the mentally ill deserve better.

The San Jose Mercury News

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