Schwarzenegger wants to mandate more spending on higher education than prisons

The California Institution for Men prison fence in Chino, California. File photo.
The California Institution for Men prison fence in Chino, California. File photo.
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In his annual State of the State address, Governor Schwarzenegger vowed to end California's practice of spending more on prisons than on higher education. The statement drew applause from lawmakers in Sacramento. KPCC's state capital reporter Julie Small examines whether the governor’s goal will sustain California's higher education system.

It's a cliché state lawmakers love to apply in their railings against cuts to education, and Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn't resist using it again in his final state of the state address.

"Thirty years ago 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and 3 percent went to prisons" Schwarzenegger said. "Today almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7½ percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future."

Schwarzenegger wants a constitutional amendment to prevent California lawmakers from ever spending more on prisons than on higher education. But California already spends more on education than on anything else.

Under Proposition 98, the state must spend a minimum of 40 percent of the general fund on public elementary, middle and high schools and community colleges. The Governors' proposal would guarantee another 10 percent for higher education.

Senate Minority leader Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murietta) says that's not necessary.

"Every legislator would tell you that they value higher education more than they do prison spending," Hollingsworth remarked. "The fact is we would be spending a lot less on the prisons than the university system if we had our own control over it.

California is under federal court orders to improve prison medical care. A federal receiver has hired more doctors and more prison guards to try and accomplish that. But because the prisons are so crowded, they lack enough room for doctors to treat all the inmates… so prisons send inmates to outside medical facilities. The cost of that is the fastest-growing aspect of prison medical care.

Senate president pro tem Darryl Steinberg (D-Sacramento) applauded the idea of spending more on higher ed than on prison. But he thinks the only way to realize that goal is to reduce the state's prison population, "Because we know that the essence of the corrections problem is that for decades we've increased the criminal penalties and failed to pay for the tens of thousands of additional people we now incarcerate."

California's challenging a federal court order to cut the number of inmates by 40,000. A resolution could be years away.

Peter King with the University of California Board of Regents says that in a perfect world, California wouldn't need to amend the constitution so the state would spend less on prisons than on higher ed.

"We haven't lived in that world for 30 years," King said. "But what is real in the world that we have been living in and is getting worse and worse are the two largest public university systems — some would say in the world, at least the nation — something that has taken this state far beyond other states, is in serious jeopardy.  And it's way beyond cutting fat: we're deep into the bone."

Democrats and Republicans say that when it comes to balancing California’s budget, there can be no sacred cows.

Higher education remains a priority for both parties. But lawmakers have to balance it with transportation and environmental needs and health and welfare programs for poor, disabled and elderly Californians.