In a major defeat for Gov. George Deukmejian, the Senate on Saturday voted down the Administration’s top priority plan to build the first state prison in Los Angeles County on an industrial site near the Eastside community of Boyle Heights.
Sponsors of the embattled bill, however, intend to have the action reconsidered during a quickly arranged two-week extension, beginning Tuesday, of their 1986 session.
Deukmejian, clearly stunned by the Senate’s second rejection of his plan in as many weeks, had threatened to call legislators back into a special session if they could not resolve the prison controversy and other unfinished issues.
Instead, legislative leaders who had expected to adjourn the session on Saturday, agreed to come back for another two weeks.
Steven A. Merksamer, Deukmejian’s chief of staff, told reporters shortly after the Senate scuttled the prison plan that the governor considers passage of the prison measure “the paramount public safety issue.”
“The L.A. prison is of vital importance to the people of this state,” Merksamer declared.
The legislation, which became the target of stiff protests by community activists on the Eastside, just across the Los Angeles River from the prison site, and Latino groups statewide, failed on a Senate vote of 25 to 10, just two short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage in the 40-member chamber. All the “no” votes were cast by Senate Democrats, including President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles.
Late Friday night, the Assembly, with the strong support of Democratic Speaker Willie Brown of San Francisco, passed the measure on a vote of 54 to 22, the exact two-thirds margin needed.
Sponsors of the prison measure and top officials of the Department of Corrections had openly predicted a close victory even before the Assembly vote. But later, supporters and opponents agreed that the governor had underestimated a strong lobbying effort by Latino groups that viewed plans for a prison near heavily Democratic and Latino East Los Angeles as an affront to to all Hispanics.
Viewpoint of Opponents
“This has become extremely symbolic, not only in the Southern California area but up and down the state,” said Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), one of the prison’s chief opponents.
Noting that several Senate Democrats had been lobbied hard to reject the proposal, Torres added: “The Democratic Party has to show to the (Latino) community . . . that they have stuck by them on an issue that is so important to them.”
The bill’s author, Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside), agreed that “the most effective argument was that (the prison) was going to be put in a minority neighborhood. Like you were not supposed to do that.”
Torres and other Senate opponents held out hope that a compromise still might be found, but the terms would be difficult for Deukmejian to accept. Chief among their demands is consideration of a second prison site--preferably in a largely Republican district.
“Why always the Mexicans?” Roberti asked rhetorically. “Why always in the poor areas? Why do they always get dumped on? Maybe you have to say, it’s not going to be easy there anymore, it’s going to be tough.”
Later, he told reporters, “Equal attention should be paid to the areas where Gov. Deukmejian has his friends.”
‘This Is the Best Site’
But Merksamer quickly rejected the suggestion of a second site, declaring: “It’s not under discussion. . . . This is the best site. This has been considered for an awful long time. They’re (the Senate) just going to have to do it.”
Of immediate concern to the governor is a four-year-old law that requires a prison to be authorized in Los Angeles County before the state can occupy two prisons now under construction in San Diego County and near Stockton. With California prisons already operating at 150% of capacity, the Administration has been counting on opening these two lockups by the time of the November elections.
Unless the prison issue is resolved by then, or legislation is approved removing that condition, the Deukmejian Administration will be left with two giant white elephants and a potent campaign issue to pin on Democrats who blocked his plan.
Merksamer gave a preview of what some Democrats might face in the campaign when he declared, “We cannot allow a situation to exist that we have two prisons that are unoccupied because the Legislature did not do its job.”
Center of Controversy
The proposal for a 1,700-bed prison in an industrial area near 12th Street and Santa Fe Avenue, about two miles southeast of the Civic Center, has been under consideration in the Legislature for two years. The site adjoins the Boyle Heights section of the city and the nearest residences are less than a mile away. Local elected officials have constantly feuded over where it should go and the Department of Corrections said at least 100 other sites were studied before the Eastside location was selected.
The bill would provide $31.4 million for purchase of the site and preliminary plans for the prison.
The Senate, after voting overwhelming approval of the prison project last year, reversed itself two weeks ago and rejected the measure as more than a hundred community opponents looked on. That prompted Deukmejian to offer as a compromise an abbreviated environmental study of the prison property before its purchase. The original plans called for an environmental review only after the state owns the property.
However, the compromise was denounced by prison opponents who then concentrated their efforts on lobbying individual Democratic members.
Delay in Tally
The Senate began debate on the issue early Friday. But when the measure came up 10 votes short in its first Senate roll call, supporters turned to a rarely used parliamentary procedure that kept the vote from being officially tallied for more than 24 hours.
That gave Deukmejian time to personally lobby several Senate members while state corrections officials stood by in a lounge off the Senate floor hoping to squeeze out the few additional votes needed for passage.
But by noon Saturday, it was clear that Presley could not get the additional votes he needed.
One source familiar with the behind-the-scenes lobbying said several reelection-conscious senators who were expected to support the measure backed away after being contacted by Latino groups in their districts.
“With an election coming up, they don’t want to antagonize the Mexican-American community,” the legislative source said.
Likening the statewide Latino opponents to the characters in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Roberti said: “Mr. Garcia came to Sacramento and beat Gov. Deukmejian and beat him hard.”
Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles) said she would ask Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp to open an investigation into the Department of Corrections’ negotiations over the proposed prison property.
Molina produced state documents showing that the appraised value of a key parcel to be purchased for the prison rose from $2.7 million to $5 million during the past year.
“In reality,” Molina said, “there isn’t any interest in siting a prison in Los Angeles. There’s more of an interest in whatever may be going on with this land.”