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Will the system crash and burn in California?

For the state of California, decisions made in the next hundred days will shape the future of various corrections departments

By Bob Walsh

By now it is apparent that Governor Brown was not able to get his tax extension plan on the June ballot. It has been officially announced that the budget talks between the governor and the Democratic majority and the Republican minority have broken down. What does this mean for the profession within the formerly great state of California?

The budget of the state is currently about 30 percent in the hole. Slightly over $25 billion dollars is the most often quoted figure. That is a lot of money. The Governor’s plan has been to split the difference, cover about half that amount with cuts and about half with a five-year extension of taxes that will otherwise end on June 30 of this year. There are other one-time income enhancements that may, or may not, pass legal muster. He wants to essentially seize the money from every redevelopment agency in the state. Since the voting public passed Proposition 22 last year to prevent the state from diverting part of the money, taking all of it by disbanding those agencies against their will has some legitimate legal questions attached.

Recent polling has suggested the tax extension was possibly going to pass, but the same plan put forward as a tax increase would probably not. As the matter did not make it to the ballot before July 1, it will by definition be a tax increase and not a tax extension.

Governor Brown has stated (in a position since modified) that he wants to totally eliminate the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), formerly the California Youth Authority. He has also indicated that he intends to turn over parole functions to the counties, with the notion that they are closer to the problem and better able to deal with the issues. Theoretically, adequate funding would also be turned over to the counties to cover parole operations, though the exact details have not been forthcoming. DJJ has been shrinking steadily on its own. Many counties now send no wards to DJJ, others send very few. The governor, however, has acknowledged that making DJJ go away completely is probably unworkable.

Turning over parole to the counties requires changes in state law and would require a ramp-up time of at least months -- and maybe a couple years -- to accomplish. Never the less, it is proceeding. The legislation to accomplish this was passed by both houses and is awaiting the governor’s signature. They have still not removed the statutory requirement for State Parole to handle certain sex offender and two-strike cases. Those laws were enacted by ballot initiative and cannot be easily removed or modified.

It is now obvious that (unless Jerry was pulling our leg) the state will have to go to a cut-only budget, at least temporarily. What will be hacked? K-12 schools will suffer, class sizes will go up. Community Colleges will be seriously hit, as will many valuable and useful social programs.

The hellishly expensive inmate health care system is operated under federal court order, so cutting there is not a realistic expectation without a significant cut in population. That may yet occur as the federal court has ordered the state to dump about 44,000 inmates from its system. That matter is under appeal to the Supreme Court.

The governor has said very clearly that the cuts will come if his tax plan does not pass. Does he really mean it? Or perhaps will everybody play pretend with funding sources that are wildly and unrealistically optimistic, as has happened repeatedly in past budgets?

I believe we are at a tipping point. I believe that this calendar year is crunch time. If there is not strong action taken to get the budget under control, then the state’s finances will very possibly crash and burn. It will take many hard choices that will anger a lot of people. Most of them vote, though many are not net taxpayers. It will take resolve, and a level of courage the legislature has not shown up to now. The next 100 days will tell the tale.

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