Prison Hot Potato

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If you only remember two things about the crisis in California prisons, might I suggest the following: (1) the prisons are overcrowded and in the crosshairs of the federal courts, and (2) the prison system is apparently in need of billions of dollars to solve problem number 1.

The above Problem (2)... the money... was the focus of today's announcement by GOP legislators of a proposed "fix" to the landmark $7.7 billion prison construction bond signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in May 2007.

The new proposal, SB 1705, gives the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation more flexibility over how to spend the bond money, and attempts to expedite the design and construction process of expanding prison capacity.

It's somewhat unclear as to just who asked for the changes included in the new GOP bill. Republicans legislators said today that many of the changes were requested by Attorney General Jerry Brown, but a spokesman for Brown declined to comment on any requests that might have been made in "legal advice" between the state's lawyer and his clients.

Also unclear is whether these modifications to the 2007 prison bond will have any impact on the stalemate over a separate $7 billion bond to pay for prison health care needs, a bond measure blocked by Republicans and demanded by the federal court-appointed receiver for prison health care.

"I believe that, combined with this fix, that out of the Senate there are votes in order to move the receiver's bond forward," said Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster).

But there wasn't the same level of confidence from Assembly Republicans. "I think we would just have to look at [the receiver's proposal] and see what it looks like," said Assembly GOP Leader Mike Villines (R-Fresno). Villines said he'd like to see some of the prison health care needs paid from the first bond package before borrowing more.

And even then, Democrats in the state Senate say that all of this still ignores the need for actually reducing the population behind prison walls.

In other words, the endgame in the prison crisis is still unclear, and the issue is the hottest of hot potatoes under the Capitol dome... looming large over an already ominous budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins next Tuesday.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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