News

Gov’s prison bond still searching for GOP support

Among the many pieces in the governor’s ambitious $220 billion
infrastructure investment plan, nothing screams Republican red meat quite
like the prison bond. But strangely, the administration has not been able to
find a Republican in the Senate to sponsor the governor’s proposal for $6.8
billion in state borrowing to build new county jails and state prisons.

In another twist, the bond is currently being opposed by the California
Correctional Peace Officers Association, an organization that usually
aggressively backs efforts to build new prisons. The opposition from CCPOA
may be part of the reason the bond has not found a Senate author. One
obvious candidate to carry the measure would be Sen. Charles Poochigian, the
ranking Republican on the Senate Public Safety Committee. But Poochigian is
running for attorney general, and may be wary of sponsoring a measure that
is opposed by the powerful, and politically generous prison guards’ union.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said because of “policy changes”
introduced in the bond “there was not the time to have all the appropriate
discussions on the Senate side.” But she downplayed the significance of the
lack of a Senate sponsor, noting that the issue would ultimately be resolved
in a conference committee.

But the lack of a Senate Republican author underscores a larger theme in
many of the governor’s ambitious infrastructure proposals–much like the
governor’s other infrastructure proposals, his $6.8 billion plan for new
state prisons and county jails has received criticism from both the left and
the right.

Democrats have taken their traditional stance of balking at new prison and
jail construction, citing more pressing needs for transportation, schools,
hospitals and levees.

Meanwhile, law enforcement groups including CCPOA which opposed the
governor’s agenda during the special election, has criticized the bond as
“too little, too late” while county officials say the governor’s proposal
demands too much local money.

But there is some bipartisan support for the measure as well. Assemblyman
Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, has agreed to author the governor’s prison bond in
the Assembly.

The governor’s plan is a two-part jail and prison bond, part of which would
come before voters in 2006, and part in 2010. In 2006, voters would be asked
to approve $2.6 billion, most of which would go to county jails. Local
officials would be expected to match the state dollar for dollar to build
new beds in county facilities. In 2010, an additional $4.2 billion in bonds
would come before voters for new county jail and state prison construction.

Among the most controversial parts of the governor’s plan is the funding
mechanism for building new beds in county jails. The administration is
hoping to move some state inmates into county facilities toward the end of
their sentence, and offering to pay for those new beds. But local jails
would not qualify for any general obligation bond money unless local
governments found a way to match the state money with their own money to
build new beds for county inmates.

“We think there needs to be some changes to the proposal,” says Steve Szalay
executive director of the California State Sheriffs Association. “We’re
very happy about out the $4 billion in GO bonds and the idea of a match, but
a 100 percent local match is too high.” Szalay says the idea of “building
state cells in local jails is worthy of discussion but shouldn’t be the
condition to get [state bond] money.”

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer says the funding formula for
building new beds was “just a way to take a creative look at the need for
beds” in the state prisons and county jails. The fact is, our prisons and
jails are overcrowded, and this is something the state has to address.”

Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, will chair an informational hearing
Tuesday about the prison bond featuring members of the administration, law
enforcement officials, academics and the legislative analyst. But Migden
blasted the administration proposal, not only on policy grounds, but for
what she called the lack of attention to detail paid by the administration
in crafting this, and other infrastructure proposals.

“All of these bonds were very poorly crafted and slapped together at the
last minute,” said Migden. “This, to me, is a very sloppy and unthorough
effort.”

Migden dismissed the prison bond as a pawn introduced by the administration
to help shape final negotiations on the overall infrastructure package. The
governor introduced the measure, even though he knew there was little chance
Democrats would vote to place the bond on the ballot.

“It’s certainly insincere to submit it,” she said. “It’s just a little bit
of manipulation without substantive intent.”

CCPOA’s Lance Corcoran says his union desperately wants new prisons to be
built, and says the governor and Democrats have taken a “head in the sand
approach” to prison construction. But instead of praising the governor’s
effort to at least chip away at the state’s overcrowded prisons, he teed off
on the administration in a letter sent to Arambula last week.

“Every plan put forward by the administration to deal with the prison
population problem has been a miserable failure,” he wrote. “Allowing them
to delay much-needed prison construction projects until they are out of
office is an unreasonable approach to this problem.”

But Palmer says the approach is a reasonable one, given the current
political climate. Building new prisons “is never going to have the appeal
of building highways, but it is something we have to do,” he says.


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