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Wilson Makes His Point--at Prison : Budget: He uses Folsom as a backdrop to accuse Democrats of wanting to reduce sentences for felons in the continuing battle over state finances.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A day after Democrats bashed him for protecting the rich from a tax increase, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson counterpunched Wednesday, choosing as a backdrop the gray stone walls of Folsom Prison to accuse Democratic budget writers of wanting to reduce sentences for rapists, robbers and burglars.

It was the first time in recent years that a governor has gone to a prison to deliver a budget message. But the unusual setting was in keeping with the political theater that has dominated budget talks since Monday’s announcement that the potential deficit had soared to $14.3 million.

At issue with Wilson was a proposal by Democrats to reduce the Department of Corrections budget by $350 million to help balance the budget. The money would be saved by shortening prison sentences of thousands of felons, coupled with a reduction in the number of state prison personnel.

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Democrats say that only felons convicted of nonviolent crimes or parole violations would get early releases from their sentences. But Wilson, after conferring with Department of Corrections officials, projected that the proposed budget cuts would mean “shorter time served by more than 5,000 of the 7,000 convicted felons here in Folsom, including 1,200 robbers; 720 rapists, child molesters and other sex offenders; 300 kidnapers; 975 burglars and almost 500 drug dealers.”

Wilson’s remarks were reminiscent of the theme used successfully by President Bush in his 1988 campaign--that the liberal philosophy of Democrat Michael Dukakis resulted in the furlough of violent criminals.

Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) just the day before had delivered a fiery speech on the steps of the Capitol ripping Wilson for proposing to eliminate credits for renters while opposing a Democrat-backed plan to raise taxes on the wealthy.

On Wednesday, however, Roberti took the high ground. He urged the governor to “cool his rhetoric” and work with Democrats to produce a budget.

Wilson, talking with reporters outside the main gate of the prison, said that despite the strong talk he is encouraged that he and the Democrats will be able to work out a budget deal by the July 1 start of the 1991-92 fiscal year.

The Republican governor laughed about Roberti’s speech the day before. “Those tax-the-rich speeches are good for David’s equanimity,” he told reporters. “They allow him to have a little fun. He isn’t very serious about it because he knows he doesn’t have the votes in his house to get it to my desk, so it’s utterly academic.”

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The forgiving tone set by Wilson is markedly different than the atmosphere that existed under former Gov. George Deukmejian. Budget discussions under Deukmejian often were marked by personal insults, unrelieved tension and humorless, angry exchanges.

As for prison funding, Wilson said he was unwilling to go beyond the $100-million prison cut that he has already proposed because it would mean the premature release of convicted felons. Wilson said the budget “simply cannot mean open season on innocent people for every criminal in this state,” and called the Democrats’ call for a further $350-million cut dangerously shortsighted.

Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), the chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and sponsor of the budget cut, complained about what he said was demagoguery on prison issues.

Vasconcellos said his plan would release nonviolent prisoners from parole requirements--but only after their time was served--or by allowing other felons to serve sentences by going to drug abuse clinics or doing community service.

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