Opposition to state budget deal mounts

State Senate President Darrell Steinberg discusses with reporters the provisions of the proposed state budget deal.
State Senate President Darrell Steinberg discusses with reporters the provisions of the proposed state budget deal.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Less than 24 hours after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders announced a plan to close California’s massive budget deficit, Los Angeles County officials moved to sue the state, a union for government workers said it might strike, and Republicans threatened to back out of the deal over a provision to cut the number of prison inmates by 27,000.

The governor largely stayed out of sight, except for posting a brief video on Twitter in which he played with a big knife and talked about autographing state property to be sold at auction to raise extra money. Legislative leaders, meanwhile, began to brief their members, and staff started compiling a formal proposal in anticipation of a vote that could occur Thursday.

But as those preparations went ahead, the leader of the Republicans in the state Assembly reacted angrily to news posted on The Times’ website about the deal’s effect on prisons. Under the plan, some inmates would be allowed to finish their sentences on home detention, new incentives would be created for completion of rehabilitation programs, and parole supervision would be scaled back for the least serious offenders. The prisons now hold 168,000 inmates.

Soon after that news broke, Assembly GOP leader Sam Blakeslee sent members an e-mail with the heading, “Budget Double-Cross?” Blakeslee suggested that he had not known about the plans and said Republicans would not vote for it.

The budget deal needs a two-thirds vote in each house of the Legislature, meaning that it cannot pass without some Republican support. And with the left and the right of the political spectrum unhappy over different items -- and many legislators still in the dark about what, exactly, they will be asked to vote on -- the prospects remained uncertain.

Until that uncertainty ends, aides to state Controller John Chiang said his office would continue to send IOUs to California residents and businesses.

The IOUs, totaling $724.7 million to date, started going out earlier this month, a highly visible symptom of the financial uncertainty that has pushed the state’s credit rating close to junk status.

As rank-and-file lawmakers, interest groups and California residents alike began to digest the agreement announced Monday evening, many found much to dislike.

The deal would close the state’s $26.3-billion deficit with deep cuts to schools and programs that serve the elderly, poor and disabled; borrow money and take funds from local government; and slice law enforcement funding.

“It’s a budget everyone will hate,” Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) said early Tuesday. “It’s a budget that has gimmicks. But I think it will pass.”

Some of the most heated reaction came from city and county government officials. The plan would seize $4.7 billion in local funds through a variety of measures, essentially shifting part of the state’s deficit to the local governments. The prospect of losing $313 million in redevelopment funds and $109 million in gasoline taxes prompted the lawsuit threat from Los Angeles County supervisors, a move other local governments are expected to echo.

And state worker unions were angry about the deal’s plan to continue three unpaid furlough days a month, which amounts to about a 14% pay cut. The largest of the unions, Service Employees International Union Local 1000, has mailed out strike authorization ballots to its 95,000 members.

“Making state employees pay what amounts to a 15% furlough tax is just plain wrong,” said union President Yvonne Walker. “We’ll fight in the courts, in the Legislature and in the workplace to have it cut back.”

But it was the effect that the deal would have on prisons that seemed to offer the most potential for trouble.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Legislature had publicly released details of the prison portion of the agreement. When they were revealed, Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) insisted that he had not agreed to them.

He had agreed to a deal including prison cuts, Blakeslee wrote in a seemingly hurried e-mail to the GOP caucus, but his understanding was that the details were supposed to be ironed out in August.

“I have called and personally told both Karen and Darrell that their will be no republican votes for any portion of the budget if they allow such a bill to be part of the package,” Blakeslee wrote, referring to Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

Blakeslee’s spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether he would break the deal.

By contrast, the Republican leader in the state Senate, Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta, said in an interview that he continues to support the budget deal.

One possibility would be for Democrats to approve the prison provisions as a separate bill that would require only a majority vote.

That, however, would require Republicans to approve the rest of the package knowing that the prison changes would be added.

The governor’s corrections chief, Matt Cate, said the administration was doing a “full-court press” to win approval for the plan.

“If we don’t achieve these measured, thoughtful, I think smart-on-crime proposals, then we really are in a position where we have nothing left to do but talk about early release,” Cate said.

If it passes, the prison plan would be a prime example of how the budget crisis could force California to make changes that have long been talked about, but have proven politically difficult. It would amount to a significant reversal of a decades-long pattern of longer sentences and rising prison populations.

Steinberg told reporters that the proposal would target the “revolving door” that state prisons have become for lower-level offenders.

The plan resembles recommendations from experts on reducing California’s prison overcrowding, which is the focus of a federal lawsuit in which judges have been considering whether to order a mass inmate release.

“We have not done a very good job in California of distinguishing between people who are violent and who belong in prison for a long time, and those who could succeed on the outside with supervision, who have not demonstrated any history of violence,” Steinberg said.

The prison plan would give state corrections officials authority to allow any inmate with 12 months or less on his or her sentence to serve the remaining time on home detention with electronic monitoring.

Inmates who are over 60 or medically incapacitated could also get home detention or be confined in a hospital.

In addition, inmates who achieve milestones in rehabilitative programs, substance abuse treatment, vocational training or education could receive up to six weeks off their prison terms.

The plan includes Schwarzenegger’s proposal to release and deport illegal immigrant felons, and a scaled-down version of another proposal of his to change some felonies to misdemeanors so inmates could be held in county jails instead of prisons. Sentences for property crimes also would be scaled back.

A “Parole Re-Entry Accountability Program” would reduce the state parole population by 46,000 -- more than a third of those now under supervision -- depending on their crimes and behavior.

Those former prisoners convicted of the least serious crimes would not be subject to parole revocation that could return them to prison.

The budget plan also would create a sentencing commission to reexamine the state penal code, which would not save money immediately but would advance plans under discussion by lawmakers for years.

The commission would have three years to establish new sentencing guidelines.


Shane Goldmacher and Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report.