Legislature OKs cuts to state prisons
Lawmakers on Friday gave final approval to a plan to cut the state’s giant prisons budget, passing a hard-fought measure that would reduce the inmate population by thousands but stop far short of solving the overcrowding crisis.
It would also leave California’s budget with $200 million in red ink. Administration officials said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger intends to sign the measure nonetheless.
But as the lawmaking calendar drew to a close, the only other major legislation heading toward the governor was in danger of a veto. The measure, hailed by environmentalists as one of the most important in the country, would substantially boost the amount of energy that utilities must derive from solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable resources.
Lawmakers sidelined plans to ease construction of a stadium in the Los Angeles area that could bring NFL football back to town. Ambitious proposals to ban potentially toxic chemicals in baby bottles, cut down on plastic grocery bag use and require more pets to be sterilized were scuttled.
The prisons measure, SBX3 18 by Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego), would reduce supervision of low-level offenders on parole so they could not be sent back for violating the terms of their release. It would allow some offenders to earn shorter terms by completing rehabilitation programs.
Legislative officials estimated that under the measure, the prison population would fall by 20,000 to 25,000 over two years.
But the bill no longer contains provisions passed by the Senate that would have moved thousands of inmates to home detention and created a commission with the power to change state sentencing laws. Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), called the final bill “prison lite,” although she voted for it, and declared: “What’s not in the bill is a resolution and solution to this prison crisis.”
The vote was the culmination of weeks of controversy and dispute over how to safely cut the population of the state’s overcrowded prisons to ease budgetary pressure and satisfy a federal court order to reduce the number of inmates.
The Senate, despite fierce opposition from law enforcement, had approved a broader package of cuts earlier in the summer to reduce the number of inmates by 37,000 over two years, nearly the amount federal judges have demanded.
That package would have cut $525 million from the $1.2 billion in prison cuts they authorized in July’s budget deal. The governor planned to make up the difference with administrative actions.
The package sent to the governor’s desk Friday evening, however, is estimated to be more than $200 million short. It is not clear how that money will be made up. As the hours ticked by Friday, action in the Capitol was mostly dominated by bickering, scheming, and disappointment.
Top lawmakers shuttled between closed-door meetings with one another and powerful interest groups. There was so much activity in the governor’s courtyard smoking tent, where Schwarzenegger and his staff conduct negotiations and fine cigars are passed around, that legislative staff in offices above raised a sign reading, “Bitte nicht Rauchen” (German for “Please do not smoke”).
By late night, Democratic leaders abandoned efforts to push another major bill through before the clock ran out: a big water bond and policy package that had support from some long-dueling industry and environmental groups, though not enough lawmakers.
The Senate did manage to pass the energy bill, which would raise to 33% the amount of energy the utilities must get from renewable sources. Final approval by the Assembly of some minor amendments was expected.
However, a high-ranking administration official said late Friday that the governor planned to veto the bill, AB 64 by Paul Krekorian (D-Burbank), and a companion measure, SB 14 by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), unless Democrats redrafted the proposals to discard provisions limiting the amount of energy that can come from outside California. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the bills were not yet on the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers throughout the day also expressed frustration with what has been one of the more unproductive years in Sacramento. Disgruntled GOP lawmakers began withholding their votes on nearly every measure that came up, to show their anger at Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) over what they said were broken promises
Among them, GOP staffers said, was a chance for Republicans to kill a state program popular with taxpayers that allows state authorities to fill out their tax forms. The tax preparation firm Intuit, which sells TurboTax, has been trying to abolish the program for years.
Meanwhile, facing stiff resistance from environmentalists, Steinberg opted to put the brakes on the stadium bill, ABX3 81 by Isadore Hall (D-Compton), which would have waived environmental laws that proponents say stand in the way of a 75,000-seat stadium proposed by billionaire Ed Roski.
Steinberg said he wants to try, in coming weeks, to mediate an agreement that addresses the environmental impact of the stadium plan.
“Because I see the obvious merit in the proposed stadium development in the City of Industry -- the creation of up to 18,000 jobs, the economic development for the area, and the tax revenue for the local and state governments -- I am willing to . . . commence negotiations,” Steinberg wrote to his colleagues.
If negotiations fail, Steinberg said, he would allow the bill, which passed the Assembly on Thursday, to be heard in a special legislative session before the end of this month.
Several bills that failed to win enough votes were put off until next year. One was SB 250, by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), which would have required many dogs and cats to be sterilized unless the owners obtained an unaltered animal license.
Another measure would have banned the chemical BPA (bisphenol A) from feeding products designed for children younger than 3. “It’s a shame that we have failed to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” said Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), author of SB 797.
The Senate was struggling Friday over a proposal by Schwarzenegger to create a 4.8% surcharge on all new or renewed commercial and residential fire insurance policies to raise funds for emergency and fire protection services. Democrats championing the bill, AB 196 by the Assembly Budget Committee, cited ongoing wildfires. But Republicans were balking, saying another tax would hurt the economy and taxpayers.
The water package that legislative leaders scrambled unsuccessfully to pass late Friday included nearly $12 billion in bonds and the implementation of five policy proposals addressing a broad range of issues. Examples: urban water conservation, water rights and creation of a council to oversee projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said legislative leaders hope to revive the package in a special session before the end of the year.
Times staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this report.
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