Three strikes and you're in

California's Democratic governor and Legislature fight each other over whether to build a new prison.

Published June 1, 1999 9:21AM (EDT)

Among California's better-known seasonal phenomena are the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano every spring and the inevitable impasse between the state Legislature and the governor over the state budget every summer. With this year's budget deadline now looming, there are signs that negotiations may once again turn nasty.

There was hope that this year would be different. For the first time in 16 years, the governor comes from the same party that controls both the state Senate and Assembly. But new Democratic Gov. Gray Davis is quickly finding that some members of his own party are emerging as his most vocal opponents.

One key internecine battle is erupting over the governor's proposal to spend $335 million for a new state prison to hold 4,500 convicts. Over the last six years, the Democratic-controlled Legislature has been the primary obstacle in blocking new public funding for prisons. Those spats were annually written off as mere partisan squabbles between Democrats and the former governor, Republican Pete Wilson.

But Davis, like Wilson before him, was elected with the help of the powerful prison guards union, which spent $2 million on an independent campaign on Davis' behalf. More prison construction means more prison guards, and more jobs for the union. Meanwhile, a union spokesman claims California prisons are in a state of crisis, and a failure to build new prison beds could soon lead to federal mandates to release prisoners because of lack of space.

"This proposal being backed by the governor is exceedingly modest," said Jeff Thompson, legislative director for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). "Gray Davis has inherited a six-year delay on prison construction authorization and I think what you're seeing is a sincere attempt on his part to take some modest steps toward solving these problems."

California has built 21 new prisons in the past 15 years, a construction boom that a spokesman for the attorney general's office called "the largest publicly funded construction campaign since the pyramids." California voters routinely approved new bonds to build new facilities to house a prison population that has mushroomed by more than 500 percent since the mid-1980s, thanks in large part to tougher sentencing laws.

But in the 1990s, as the state sunk into recession, voters neglected to pass new prison bonds, leaving the state with more criminals than it had rooms to house. In spite of the earlier construction boom, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the state still needs six new prisons, with a total price tag of more than $1.5 billion, to meet the current need.

Left-leaning Democrats, including Attorney General Bill Lockyer and the leaders of both legislative houses, have advocated reform in sentencing and increased funding for crime prevention programs, as well as developing more cost-effective ways of treating nonviolent offenders. While still in the state Senate, Lockyer routinely blocked new prison funding in the state budget, while former Gov. Wilson was unwilling to support his push for more literacy and drug treatment programs in prisons.

Some of Lockyer's proposals have again been written into this year's versions of the state budget issued by both legislative houses, and have been endorsed by CCPOA. But some Democrats, including Sen. John Vasconcellos, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said they would not support any budget that provided funding for a new public prison.

"I don't see the scenario in which Sen. Vasconcellos votes for a budget bill with funding for a $355 million prison," said his spokesman, Rand Martin, "especially when the state is not providing the necessary resources to rehabilitate people."

The latest spat between Davis and legislative leaders underscores the disappointment that many Democratic lawmakers privately voice when discussing Davis' first six months in office. Though Davis promised from Election Day forward to "govern as a moderate," many Democrats have bristled at his incrementalist pace and seeming unwillingness to stray too far from the policies of his moderate Republican predecessor.

The first big split between Davis and fellow Democrats came over Proposition 187, approved by voters in 1994 to eliminate many social benefits to undocumented residents. Many Democratic lawmakers, particularly the state's Latino caucus, were angered when Davis decided to revive the issue in the courts, even though it had been ruled unconstitutional.

Legislative leaders were also quick to criticize Davis for not consulting them before he announced his new budget last month. Democratic lawmakers now say they are finding out the hard way that though the governor's party may have changed, the endemic animosity between the legislative and executive branch remains.

"Traditionally, the legislative leadership has resented being bullied by the governor," said one Democratic assemblyman. "Normally it's around budget time that the Legislature flexes its muscle. The inherent tension between the branches of government doesn't change with political parties. It's built into the system."

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton put it more bluntly. "No budget will be rammed down our throat," Burton told reporters after Davis' budget news conference. In addition to the philosophical opposition many Democrats have to building new prisons, Davis' plan also eats up a sizable chunk of money that could be used for legislators' pet projects. Every year, the state budget is loaded with new swimming pools, local parks and recreation centers that lawmakers cling to during budget negotiations.

"I'm sure there's no shortage of other suggestions on how to spend the money," Thompson said. "But I think the governor wants to be responsible."

"Look, it's nobody's first reaction to say, 'Hey we've got $335 million to spend. Let's go build a prison,'" said Davis spokesman Michael Bustamante. "But the reality is, there is a tremendous need for space for inmates. The alternative would be to release prisoners early, and that is absolutely, unequivocally, unacceptable to Gov. Davis."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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