SACRAMENTO — Attempts to reach agreement on the politically charged issue of a Los Angeles prison collapsed Tuesday when the Senate's Democratic leader refused to allow a vote on Republican Gov. George Deukmejian's plan to build the lockup on a controversial site in East Los Angeles.
The Assembly approved the plan, however, and both houses abruptly recessed for a week as Deukmejian and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) exchanged a new round of bitter accusations, each charging the other with double dealing and election year political expediency.
"Sen. Roberti double-crossed me," Deukmejian declared in an angry statement. Accusing the Senate leader of placing "election year politics above the safety of the people of California," the governor decried Roberti's actions as "not only deplorable, but shameful as well."
Roberti, in an equally angry denunciation of the governor, charged that Deukmejian had decided to place the prison near heavily Latino Boyle Heights as "a vendetta." Deukmejian, he fumed, "wants to beat East Los Angeles into the ground. And, by golly, we in the Senate aren't about to let him do it."
The nasty exchange underscored the continued political stalemate that has kept the divisive prison issue bottled up in the Legislature for nearly two years. Lawmakers' failure to reach any agreement Tuesday leaves the question of a Los Angeles prison right back where it was on Sept. 8, when Deukmejian called the legislators into special session to resolve the dispute.
The Senate is due to return next Tuesday for further talks on the prison issue. But the Assembly, which now has passed the governor's prison plan three times, approved a resolution calling for an end to the governor's special legislative session if no agreement is reached by that date.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), mindful that the Nov. 4 elections are rapidly approaching and looking for a way to further pressure the Senate into acting, told the Assembly that "we're not coming back at all, period."
The decision to recess without an agreement followed several days of intense negotiations in which several compromises were raised but ultimately abandoned for lack of support.
Deukmejian has refused to accept any plan that requires a full environmental review of the prison project before purchase of the prison property--a key demand of opponents. Administration officials have expressed concern that legal challenges to such reviews could further prolong opening the Los Angeles prison for as long as two years at a time when the prison population is expanding beyond anyone's expectations.
Sen. Robert Presley (D-Riverside), who has carried the Los Angeles prison bill for the Administration, made a final effort to find common ground Tuesday when he proposed a plan that would allow construction to begin on an Eastside prison on the condition that a second prison be built in a rural area of Los Angeles County. The proposal also would require extensive environmental reviews on both sites.
The plan, in effect, would have required a second prison to be built somewhere in the less populated northeast region of the county--an area represented mainly by Republican lawmakers, including Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
Role by Antonovich
Antonovich was credited with informing the governor about the availability of the East Los Angeles prison site nearly two years ago. Ever since, Democratic opponents have claimed that Deukmejian had selected the Eastside location as a way of assuring a prison would not be built in a Republican district.
Roberti said the Senate's Republican leadership said "dead no" to the plan.
Deukmejian earlier this month flatly rejected suggestions that a second prison be built in a predominantly Republican area of the county, saying, "We don't have time to go back and start looking at a lot of other sites."
With little prospect of any agreement Tuesday, a two-house conference committee whose members were generally allied with the governor on the prison issue immediately voted approval of Deukmejian's prison plan. The full Assembly followed by endorsing the plan, 42-12.
Tactics by Roberti
Roberti invoked a rarely used parliamentary procedure and refused to allow the full Senate to vote on the plan. Instead, he recessed the Senate and appointed a new conference committee.
In a press conference, the Senate leader accused Deukmejian and Senate Republicans of wanting to "sock it to the Mexican-Americans (in East Los Angeles) while they refuse to accept a second prison where their Republican representation is. You can tie the tail on the donkey of Gov. Deukmejian on this one."
Deukmejian immediately called Roberti's actions "unprecedented," adding that they "constitute an outrageous and irresponsible abuse of the legislative process."
Neither Roberti nor Brown would predict what will happen next. Roberti said he will be willing to continue negotiations for as long as it takes to find an agreement. Presley said he still feels an agreement is possible on a second prison elsewhere in the county.
But Brown appeared ready to wash his hands of the entire matter, telling Assembly members that, since the Assembly cannot end the special session without the agreement of the Senate, he intends to simply recess the session every 10 days while members are free to campaign for the November elections.
"I certainly don't intend to bring you back," he said.