Why Spare Prisons From Budget Cuts?


Why Spare Prisons From Budget Cuts?

Prison guards get special treatment from Davis

Gov. Gray Davis’ budget plan goes a little something like this: Let’s raise taxes and fees.

Let’s slash education programs, cut health services and eliminate construction projects designed to alleviate traffic. Let’s force cash-strapped cities (San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy recently said the city faces a projected $20 million shortfall) and counties to run a variety of child abuse and health care services that they are ill equipped to finance or handle. And while we’re at it, let’s increase funding for our prisons.

Davis’ budget plan makes perfect sense if you’re a prison guard or a governor lining his coffers with money from prison unions. Meanwhile, if you’re in charge of San Diego’s schools, you’re busy wrestling with budget cuts. San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Alan Bersin told the Union-Tribune that the district will most likely have to cut some teaching positions next year.

“Virtually every program in the state has been reduced,” Davis said as he announced his plans to balance the state’s budget.

The governor had to qualify his statement with “virtually” because prisons are Davis’ sacred cow.

Despite a $34.8 billion deficit, the Department of Corrections is actually slated to get a 1 percent increase in funding in the governor’s proposed budget. The governor’s budget even includes $220 million for a new state-of-the-art death row facility at San Quentin Prison. Furthermore, while Davis wisely suggested laying off about 1,900 state employees, he also called for adding 800 new prison employees – and potential contributors — to the corrections payroll.

Prison guards seem to be safe because their union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, gave $2.1 million to Davis’ 1998 campaign and has given the governor an additional $1.46 million in direct and indirect donations since then. In return, Davis rewarded them with an inexplicable pay raise of more than 30 percent over the next five years and has steadfastly refused to cut their programs.

Instead of cutting prison pork, Gov. Davis is willing to place the financial burden on taxpayers with a one-cent sales tax increase that would cost the average family at least $200 per year; increased fees for driver’s licenses; a cigarette tax increase that would force smokers to cough up an extra $1.10 per pack; and a personal income tax increase that could cost the state’s wealthiest residents around $2.6 billion annually.

The governor also passed the buck to cities and counties, forcing them to operate costly long-term health care and child abuse programs usually run by the state. Former Gov. Pete Wilson designed a similar realignment in the early 1990s. Mike Van Mouwerik, San Diego County health budget manager, said in a newspaper interview that sales tax revenue fell about $8 million short of funding the programs that the state pawned off on the county last year. And you can bet the new tax revenue that Davis promises for these new responsibilities won’t be enough to cover the expenses. As a result, San Diego will be forced to find ways, meaning increased fees and taxes, to fund the programs the governor is handing them.

We’ll also find increased fees at the state’s community colleges, where tuition will more than double. The state’s community college chancellor, Tom Nussbaum, estimates 146,000 fewer students will attend community colleges next year because of the cuts. Maybe that’s the governor’s grand plan – a less-educated population that is more likely to commit crimes. Eventually, the entire state could be one big prison. Think of all the guards – and all the campaign contributions.

Davis said he wouldn’t sign a budget that doesn’t produce real reforms. Why not start with real reforms to the prison system?

California’s prison health care costs rose from $282 million to more than $660 million in a recent four-year span. Last year, it was reported that California spends $4,222 per inmate on medical care each year. By comparison, an average of $4,637 was spent on health care for each American in 2000. California’s escalating inmate health care costs are even more perplexing when you consider that the majority of prisoners are men in their the mid-20s to 30s – and as a group should be relatively healthy.

The bottom line is that there are prison cuts and efficiency gains to be made if Davis is interested in looking. The governor is asking taxpayers to pay more taxes and fees. He’s asking cities and counties to do more with less. He’s cutting education by more than $5 billion. If he is truly serious about cutting state spending and charting a course for long-term economic health, shouldn’t he ask prisons to share the burden?

David Nott is the President of Reason Foundation.