By Dan Walters firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: Friday, Jan. 30, 2009
The fastest growing segment of the state’s deficit-ridden budget, by far, has been its prison system, reflecting severe overcrowding, generous labor contracts and federal court pressure to reform inmate health care. “Corrections,” an ironic misnomer, has jumped from less than $5 billion a year to more than $10 billion in the last decade, over twice as fast as school spending, the biggest budget item. It now costs about $45,000 a year to feed, clothe and medicate each of the state’s 170,000-plus inmates, or roughly five times what taxpayers spend on a typical public school student. And that doesn’t count what it costs to supervise tens of thousands of parolees. One element of any plan to close the state’s immense deficit, as well as relieve the overcrowding that invites federal intervention, must be to get a handle on prison costs by shedding some low-intensity inmates. The Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, is proposing a smartly conceived expansion of the administration’s modest proposal to shift some criminal justice functions to counties. Taylor’s office would expand it to a $1.4 billion-per-year “realignment,” including shifting some 14,000 low-risk inmates – primarily drug abusers and drunken drivers – from state prisons to local treatment programs. The expansion would be financed by increasing the “vehicle license fee,” a property tax on cars, from 0.65 percent of a vehicle’s value to 1 percent, the same rate levied on houses, commercial buildings, airplanes, boats and motor homes, thus raising over $1 billion. Not only would that relieve pressure on overcrowded prisons, but drug and alcohol treatment programs are demonstrably more effective at the local level than those inside prisons, the office says in an extensive report. Taylor’s report punches two hot political buttons – releasing some inmates from prison and raising the car tax. The Legislature cut the tax from 2 percent to the current 0.65 percent a decade ago, and eventually the state was paying local governments about $6 billion a year to “backfill” the lost revenue. Former Gov. Gray Davis reinstated the full 2 percent tax six years ago as the state’s budget developed big deficits. The move contributed to his recall by voters in 2003 with successor Schwarzenegger making it a major issue of his campaign. Schwarzenegger’s first act as governor was to restore the car tax cut. He also ordered compensation to local governments restored even though the state budget was already bleeding red ink. While the governor is now proposing some new taxes to close the chronic deficit, grown worse with recession, he has avoided raising the car tax. But taking it back to 1 percent makes perfect sense because other property is taxed at that rate. Taylor’s proposal to shift some low-risk inmates into local treatment programs also makes sense. It may be a double-barreled political headache, but it’s also a two-fer fix for the budget and for prisons.