Gov. George Deukmejian's plan to build a state prison near downtown Los Angeles gained new momentum Wednesday when a key Assembly committee rejected pleas to put the penitentiary in a rural setting and voted to buy a 20-acre parcel southeast of the Civic Center.
The measure authorizing the downtown prison, once opposed by a solid majority of Democrats, was sent to the Assembly floor by the Ways and Means Committee on a bipartisan 15-4 vote.
In a further indication of the bill's new-found support among Democrats who control the Legislature, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) said he intends to vote for the governor's bill. Brown blocked the measure last year after it had won resounding support in the Senate.
While approving the governor's plan, the Assembly committee also delayed action on a competing bill by Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles) that would locate the prison on the grounds of a Los Angles County jail camp near Castaic. Molina's proposal remains alive, but the committee vote for the governor's proposal appeared to signal its eventual demise.
"I'm always afraid to (predict passage) until it's actually through," Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), who is carrying the downtown prison bill for Deukmejian, said of his proposal.
Saying that he intends to press for a floor vote in the Assembly early next week, Presley added: "It looks like the bill is moving, though not without problems."
Led Fight Against Site
A spokeswoman for Molina, meanwhile, said no final decision has been made on whether she will renew her efforts on behalf of a prison site outside the downtown area. Molina had led the fight against the downtown location, which is in her district.
Deukmejian's plan calls for a 1,700-bed medium-security prison in an industrial area at Olympic Boulevard and 15th Street, about two miles southeast of the Civic Center.
Officials of the state Department of Corrections said they are unsure whether it would be used as a center to receive and process new inmates or as a medical-psychiatric treatment center for convicts with serious personality or behavior problems.
The Republican governor's plans became mired in partisan politics earlier this year when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the Democratic challenger, announced his opposition to a downtown prison and offered his own alternative site on city-owned property near the Magic Mountain amusement park.
For months, that appeared to spell the end of any progress, with Republicans lining up behind the downtown site and Democrats backing Bradley. All this changed earlier this month when Speaker Brown, reportedly angry with Molina over her support of an Assembly candidate whom he opposed in the primary, changed the makeup of the Assembly Public Safety Committee. The change immediately breathed new life into the downtown prison plan.
Brown has denied that his own feelings toward Molina have anything to do with his action. But on Wednesday, the Speaker made a rare appearance during the Ways and Means Committee hearing on the prison bill and later told a reporter that he would vote for the downtown site.
Among controversial aspects of the prison bill expected to draw fire on the Assembly floor is its authorization to purchase the property before the state has begun a required environmental impact study. Normally the study is completed before land is purchased. But state corrections officials contend that the property may not be available if they wait.