Bass is in a tough position as prison cuts stall in the Assembly

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Well, the governor had the prison plan he wanted for a few hours Thursday, but the way things look now that bill better be written in erasable ink.

While the state Senate managed to muster the bare-minimum 21 votes needed to pass the Legislature’s part of the $1.2 billion cut in the state prison system, the Assembly adjourned at midnight after hours of private deliberations and sub rosa horse-trading couldn’t bring out enough support to send the measure to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk.

Since legislators, who arrived back in Sacramento last Monday after a month-long summer recess, are fleeing the capital for a three-day weekend, that means nothing is going to happen on the prison bill until Monday.

The math is dead simple. The prison bill needs a simple majority of 41 votes to pass. It’s not going to get any GOP support, since, first, Republicans argue that any plan that lets prisoners out early is a threat to public safety and, second, it’s a lot of fun to watch the Democrats squirm over the vote.

Democrats already have seen their Assembly majority shrink to 49, with Fresno’s Juan Arambula changing his registration to independent and the 51st District seat vacant since Curren Price of Inglewood won a special election for state Senate.

The three Democratic Assembly members running for attorney general – Ted Lieu, Pedro Nava and Alberto Torrico – are no way, no how going to cast any vote that will let them be tagged with a “soft on crime” label in the 2010 campaign.

Democrats in conservative districts also are leery of standing up alongside the Republican governor and voting to let about 27,000 prison inmates head back to communities across California. And that goes double for any Democrat looking at the possibility of a strong GOP challenge next year.

So Assembly Speaker Karen Bass is left with trying to find someone who’s willing to take one for the team and provide a needed vote for prison reform. After hours of caucuses Thursday, the Democrats apparently remained short of anyone willing to accept a cigarette and a blindfold.

Some of the problems probably could have been avoided if the Democrats had been willing to split the prison reform package into several bills, rather than a single omnibus measure that included something for everyone to hate. But that’s a political question that regularly arises: Do you want to fight a battle one time, and do the arm-twisting all at once, or deal with a bunch of smaller skirmishes which, combined, could take even more political effort?

Still, though, it would have been interesting to watch Republicans try and come up with a reason for voting against every single piece of the prison package and still argue that there wasn’t any political calculus behind the decisions.

Why not allow inmates who complete education, vocational and substance abuse programs and keep a clean record during their time behind bars earn more credits that can cut their sentences?

Why shouldn’t low-risk prisoners who are over 60 or who have serious health problems be allowed to spend the final year of their sentences under home detention, with a monitor hooked to their ankles?

And, most importantly, how is California going to deal with a federal court order to ease prison overcrowding by releasing some 43,000 inmates if all Republican legislators can say is “No, no, no”?

But the prison bill also includes some sections that are hard for many Democrats to choke down.

Republicans, for example, are upset about a new commission that will review state sentencing guidelines. With the state in desperate need of fewer prisoners, they suspect, rightly so, that this commission isn’t going to spend much time talking about longer sentences for felons.

On top of that, the requirement that one non-voting member of the commission be an ex-felon is little more than a thumb in the eye to Republicans and law enforcement officials, many of them Democrats, who already are unhappy with the prison bill.

The idea that car theft won’t be a felony unless the vehicle’s value is more than $2,500 also leads to a vision of auto boosters carrying the Kelley Blue Book with them on their nightly rounds.

Expect to see some changes in the bill before it comes to the Assembly floor. But whatever version finally comes up for a vote, Bass has to find enough support to pass it. She couldn’t do that for last month’s budget vote, which resulted in a series of Schwarzenegger vetoes that slashed deep into key Democratic programs. A repeat of that could leave Democratic senators wondering why they should have to make the tough choices if the other house won’t.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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