No Sale of the Big House

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San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.
May your walls fall and may I live to tell.
May all the world forget you ever stood.
And may all the world regret you did no good.

Those are Johnny Cash's words in his 1969 classic about California's most infamous prison.

And for now, it's going to stay a prison.

After a brief debate this morning, legislation to close San Quentin State Prison and sell its Marin coastline property was shelved, and it appears the proposal could ultimately be rejected later this year in the state Senate.

Today's hearing before the Senate Public Safety Committee featured some interesting debate, but very little surprise. The legislation from Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Merced) would close the 156-year old prison and allow the state to place the site's San Francisco Bay vistas out to the highest bidder.

Denham and other supporters believe the 432 acres that the prison sits on could fetch as much as $2 billion for the cash-strapped state. But in the brief committee debate this morning, majority Democrats not only questioned that value as "speculative" but also raised doubts about the feasibility of relocating San Quentin's 5200 prisoners... and the state's only location for men on Death Row (itself a different touchy subject). California's prison system, as is often reported, is stretched way beyond capacity.

"I think this would indeed aggravate the overcrowding," said Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF), the chair of the committee. Leno moved to essentially put the bill into a holding pattern, thus giving Denham time to possibly round up support before the final legislative deadline a few months from now.

The Republican senator agreed to the action, saying he though the proposal should remain alive as this year's budget debate begins anew.... one where the state is again facing a large deficit.

"My goal is to save the state money," Denham said.

The hearing was also noteworthy for the fact that San Quentin's Marin County digs sit squarely inside Leno's district. And the chairman engaged in a somewhat lighthearted back-and-forth with Sen. Denham about the author's stated opinion that closing the prison would be good for the surrounding community.

The debate comes on the heels of last week's state audit that suggested the state could improve the way it assesses how much surplus property there really is.

While this proposal will certainly draw public attention, that's probably as far as it will go. In the meantime, the big house by the Bay stays open for business.

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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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