There's a chance the budget hole just got deeper, if the courts side with the man tapped to resolve problems with health care in California's prisons.
Clark Kelso, the federal court appointed receiver for prison health care, decided today to pull the trigger on formal legal action to get $8 billion he says is needed to bring medical standards up to a constitutionally guaranteed level.
The action comes after legislative action stalled back in May on a bond package to pay for prison health care. Kelso's filing with the court asks for $6 billion to build new health care facilities, and another $2 billion to complete projects at existing facilities.
And as for the headline... that's a factoid mentioned by Kelso today designed to get the attention of lawmakers, who remain at loggerheads over a new budget. He estimates that if a court rules against the state in this new lawsuit, the costs in the current 2008-09 fiscal year would be $3.1 billion... potentially bringing the budget shortfall up to more than $18 billion.
For now, it seems, Governor Schwarzenegger is maintaining optimism. "The administration will continue to work cooperatively with the receiver and the Legislature to provide the necessary funding for the receiver's efforts," said gubernatorial spokesman Aaron McLear.
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.
Henry Hill: "You're a pistol, you're really funny. You're really funny."
Tommy DeVito: "What do you mean I'm funny? You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me... but I'm funny how?
I mean funny like I'm a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh?"
The new federal court receiver for prison health care, Clark Kelso, has a reputation for a calm and reasoned demeanor. And yet, I can't get Joe Pesci's tough guy character from Goodfellas out of my mind.
This morning, Kelso filed documents with U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson again demonstrating his intentions to get the money he says is needed to bring California's prison health care up to constitutional standards.
Kelso's new filing adds Controller John Chiang to the state officers listed as defendants. The receiver also filed a request to begin a legal discovery process at Chiang's office to examine the state's bank accounts.
“The reason is simple," says Kelso's filing. "The State has declined to fund major capital projects the Receiver considers essential to fulfilling the charge given to him by this court. As a result, the Receiver may find it necessary to ask this court to order the Controller to draw warrants on the State Treasury to provide the Receiver with the necessary funds."
Today's action is just the latest ratcheting up of the pressure. Last month, Republicans in the state Senate refused to provide votes for a $7 billion bond proposal to improve prison health care.
Part of the problem, said Assembly GOP Leader Mike Villines, is the price tag. Villines, in comments to reporters on Wednesday, said the proposal is the equivalent of giving a mid-size city lavish health benefits.
"We have someone [Kelso] saying they need $7 billion for 180,000 population," Villines said. "It seems astronomical, and it doesn't seem well justified."
Goodfella Tommy DeVito wouldn't like that answer. And it seems doubtful Kelso or the federal courts will, either.
UPDATE [3:30pm] In a written statement, Controller Chiang paints a gloomy picture if the courts simply come in and pluck the money needed from the state's bank account: "If the Court does order the State to make payments as requested by the Receiver, we would be forced to tap transportation, victim’s compensation, mental health and other special funds earmarked by voters for specific purposes. Such action likely would invite protracted and costly litigation at taxpayer expense."
The state auditor is out with a report this morning sure to further complicate not only the state's financial picture, but the larger debate over expenses and needs inside California's prisons. The news: a new Death Row facility at San Quentin State Prison will end up costing more than $400 million to build and open, and tens of millions more to maintain.
State Auditor Elaine Howle's full report is here. In it, she concludes that even the upwardly revised estimates from state officials for a new condemned inmate facility were too low.
The original price tag when the Legislature gave the green light in 2003: $220 million. The revised estimate, even after the Death Row project was downsized, was $356 million. Today's audit now pegs the cost of building the facility at $395.3 million, plus another $7.3 million to actually open the facility.
If you're keeping score at home, that's $402.6 million... an increase of some 83% from the original legislative appropriation.
There's also an additional cost to actually staff the new Death Row building. The auditor projects that will cost an average of $58.8 million a year, or some $1.2 billion over the next 20 years.
And just to make matters worse... will the new cells fill to capacity too soon? Auditor Howle's report says that while the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) plans to place two condemened inmates in each cell, her analysts are raising red flags about that proposal. Not only do her experts conclude that there may be legal issues with a lack of privacy for inmates preparing their appeals cases, but doubling up "increases the risk of harm to the inmates who are housed together, particularly for long periods of time."
Howle's report says if shared cells can't work, the new Death Row could actually be full as soon as 2014. That's just three years after it's expected to open.
When asking for the audit, legislators also wanted Howle to examine sites other than San Quentin for the new Death Row; she's expected to release those findings next month.
Governor Schwarzenegger's top prison adviser is leaving his job, to be replaced by the current inspector general of the state's prison system.
Jim Tilton has served as secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation since 2006 -- the third top prison official to serve under Schwarzenegger in the last five years.
This morning's announcement comes on the heels of yesterday's news by the court-appointed receiver for prison health care that another $7 billion is needed to bring the California prison medical system up to snuff.
Tilton will be replaced by Matthew Cate, who has been inspector general of the state's prisons since 2004 and was previously a deputy state attorney general.