Stateline Story

Prison Ruling Helps Brown in California Budget Debate

  • May 24, 2011
  • By John Gramlich
In the upside-down world of California politics, good news for the state recently has been bad news for Governor Jerry Brown. Now some ostensibly bad news stands to benefit one of his central policy initiatives. 

For months, Brown has been asking lawmakers to extend billions of dollars in temporary tax increases he says are necessary to put the state on a sustainable long-term trajectory. But California now is expected to take in $6.6 billion in additional revenue in the coming fiscal year, undercutting Brown's demand for taxes.

On Tuesday (May 23), however, Brown received some ammunition in his budget fight when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California must decrease its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates . The ruling is being seen as a major setback for the state, but it contains a potential benefit to Brown.

As Stateline reported from California in April , one of the major parts of the governor's budget proposal is to transfer tens of thousands of low-security inmates from the severely overcrowded state system to local jails. Lawmakers, in fact, have already approved the plan, and Brown has signed it into law. But the money that the governor has been promising localities to pay for the influx of state prisoners hinges on extension of the temporary state taxes scheduled to expire this year. Republicans in the Legislature have rejected any such extension, and they have the votes to block it.

With the U.S. Supreme Court now on record as saying that conditions in California prisons are so inhumane as to be unconstitutional - and that a sweeping prisoner reduction must occur in order to improve them - Brown is likely to escalate the pressure on Republicans to allow his tax extensions to go into effect. Already, he has warned that the tax hikes are necessary " to protect the public , " and the prospect of tens of thousands of state prisoners simply being set free because of the high court's ruling - and because localities are not receiving the funding they need to take the inmates - could be a powerful political tool.