In an ominous sign for efforts to end federal oversight of state prisons, state Senate Republicans on Tuesday rejected a $7-billion proposal to build medical facilities intended to improve unconstitutionally poor healthcare for inmates.
The plan was created by a federal receiver and backed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who appointed the receiver, wrote a letter last week urging lawmakers to approve it.
But Senate Republicans balked at the bill's high price tag and objected that it had not been coordinated with other plans that could dramatically affect state prisons, such as a proposal for settling a federal court case on overcrowding by reducing the inmate population by tens of thousands.
In two days, some of the same Republican legislators, the Schwarzenegger administration, inmates' lawyers and other parties to the overcrowding case are scheduled to report in federal court whether they agree to the settlement, which would divert some convicted criminals and parole violators into local treatment programs, county jails and alternative forms of incarceration.
Advocates for inmates in the case assert that overcrowding is the main cause of substandard healthcare in California prisons. Republican lawmakers and some local officials have expressed reservations about the proposed deal. A panel of three federal judges is poised to hold a trial that could result in a mass release of prisoners if the settlement talks fail.
The construction program and the settlement proposal are part of an overarching but largely disconnected state effort to bring the sprawling prison system and the care of inmates up to constitutional standards. Both now appear to be in some danger of sinking without legislative support.
"The problem . . . , quite frankly, is the amount of money we're talking about," said state Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto), who leads the Senate's Republican minority. "We think there are more responsible ways to move forward to get where we need to go and to do it in a much more frugal manner."
Republicans said they needed to make sure that all pending prison overhaul efforts -- including a separate state and local plan approved last year to build more beds -- would be connected.
Democrats said they feared the federal judges monitoring state prisons would not take the refusal to cooperate lightly. Henderson seized prison medical care from state control in 2006.
"This is just another example where the state has failed to enforce its own laws," said state Sen. Michael Machado (D-Linden), who wrote the bill to build medical facilities, SB 1665. "How many more times are we going to abdicate our responsibility and let the federal courts come in and govern the state?"
Receiver J. Clark Kelso wants to spend the $7 billion to build up to seven facilities with a total of 10,000 beds for inmates with long-term medical and mental health problems, and to renovate existing clinics at the state's 33 prisons. He wants to begin construction early next year.
Schwarzenegger's office said in a statement that "the receiver's plan is necessary to bringing our prisons' healthcare up to constitutional levels, as required by the federal courts. We're confident that the Legislature understands the need to improve our prison healthcare system and to do it in a financially responsible way."
Machado said he would request another vote on the measure Thursday, before a deadline passes for the Senate to approve the legislation.
Kelso said he remained optimistic that the Republicans might change their minds by then. If they don't, he said, he will be forced to take hundreds of millions of dollars directly from state coffers this year to continue operating, as opposed to borrowing nearly all of the $7 billion, as he had proposed.
The receiver could also seek an order from Henderson to compel the state to provide money, but Kelso said that would be a last resort.
"I'm proceeding step by step," Kelso said. "You don't jump to the end at the beginning."
Several Senate Republicans had previously indicated they would support the construction plan, but on Tuesday they met in private before the vote and decided as a group to oppose it.
State Sen. Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) said he thought it possible that some Republicans would change their minds by Thursday if there were a strategy to coordinate the receiver's plan, the proposed lawsuit settlement and last year's prison spending measure.
"You need to do this as a package," Cox said.
Because the bill would take effect immediately, it needs approval from two-thirds of the Democrat-controlled Senate, or 27 votes. On Tuesday, the measure garnered 22 votes, with 14 Republicans voting against it. Three Democrats and one Republican also abstained.
Machado's bill would authorize $6.9 billion in borrowing through a type of bond that do not require voters' approval. The debt would be repaid over 25 years, with average annual interest payments of $527 million, according to a Senate analysis.
The plan calls for an additional $100 million from the state's general fund.
In a letter to Machado last Thursday, Henderson said he had heard that support for SB 1665 "may be wavering" in light of questions about the proposed settlement to reduce overcrowding.
He asked the senator to communicate to colleagues "the urgency" of approving the legislation.
Henderson wrote that the settlement, with which he is also involved, would not eliminate the need for new medical facilities to improve healthcare.
While acknowledging that the receiver's proposal "asks for a significant amount of funds," the judge called it "an appropriate, cost-effective plan" that could be scaled back later if possible.
"I have directed my Receiver to continue working with you and other members of the Legislature to ensure the bill's expedited passage," the judge wrote.