Prison Receiver Pushes for Funding

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The federal appointee ordered to improve medical care in state prisons says California is in his way. He's begun to lay the groundwork for a way to force the state government to pay for the job ahead. KPCC's Julie Small reports.

Julie Small: This year, a federal judge appointed Clark Kelso to fix medical care in California's prisons. Since then, he's also approved Kelso's plan to build at least six new prison hospitals and renovate others. It's a $7 billion plan, and the state government has to pay for it.

Twice, Senate Republicans have defeated a proposal to sell bonds to pay for the plan, and Clark Kelso says he understands why.

Clark Kelso: It is, admittedly, an expensive construction effort, but it's money that simply must be spent to bring the quality of health care in California's prisons up to constitutionally acceptable levels.

Small: After the Senate rejected his plan, Kelso called on the governor, the Finance department, and the State Controller to cut him a check. Kelso says they told him the state has no legal obligation to pay. And even if it did, there wasn't enough cash in the bank.

Kelso: The state is rather deliberately obstructing my efforts.

Small: Kelso is asking the federal judge to force California to pay. He's filed a motion to add the State Controller to the lawsuit that put the state under a court order to improve prison medical care.

Kelso: The Controller is the state official that has authority to do what's called "drawing warrants." It's essentially writing a check. And the Controller, I think, is the one who ultimately would need to be given a court order directing that the Controller's office pay my expenses.

Small: Kelso says he'll initially draw down $500 million, but that could rise to billions when he signs construction contracts. Given the size of next year's state budget deficit, you'd think legislators would want to avoid a big cash payout. But Republicans say they have good reason to withhold support for Kelso's plan.

Senator George Runner: Ya know, we'd like to be able to act on the receiver's request, but feel like that's only a partial solution.

Small: Lancaster Senator George Runner says before he and his Republican colleagues approve $7 billion for prison hospitals, they want to amend a $7 billion plan lawmakers approved last year.

That plan was supposed to add 50,000 beds to prisons to reduce overcrowding, and maybe keep a panel of federal judges from capping the state's prison population. But it's hit roadblocks and delays.

Senator Runner says Republicans want to streamline prison construction. He says until Democrats agree to that, Republicans won't agree to fund the federal receiver's plan to build more prison hospitals.

Runner: The receiver has a very narrow interest. It is an important interest, and that is the issue of the lawsuit in regards to the health conditions in prison. Our problem is a much broader issue, and that is the fact that we have overall crowding, and we need to create those other beds that we agreed to last year.

Small: Republicans are playing a game of chicken. The judge who appointed Clark Kelso can order California to pay for whatever Kelso needs. Republicans are betting they can leverage that threat into more prisons. But it could backfire. Kelso hasn't asked the judge to order the state to pay up. But if he does, California could find itself writing a big fat check in one of the worst budget deficits in state history.