SACRAMENTO — State Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp said Wednesday "it's crazy" to further delay the opening of two prisons that are being held hostage in a fight between Gov. George Deukmejian and the Legislature over a proposed prison site near downtown Los Angeles.
Van de Kamp said Deukmejian should ask the Legislature for a bill to allow the opening of prisons near San Diego and Stockton even if an accord is not reached on the governor's proposed site southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
"It seems to me that (Deukmejian) could have gotten these other two prisons opened if he had been willing to go in there and really ask to have (them) opened," the Democratic attorney general said during a breakfast session with The Times Sacramento Bureau.
Van de Kamp also said it appeared that the Republican governor had stubbornly "dug in" his heels by insisting on a prison in downtown Los Angeles. "I would have looked elsewhere for other sites," he said, specifically mentioning "the north county . . . Lancaster, Palmdale, beyond Saugus."
The comments represent Van de Kamp's strongest criticism yet of Deukmejian's prison program, if not the governor himself.
In that respect, the criticism represents a distinct departure in style for the normally non-controversial Van de Kamp, and continued harsh words aimed at the governor could raise the attorney general's political visibility as he positions himself for a possible campaign for governor in 1990.
Van de Kamp, who just began his second term, conceded that he is thinking about running for governor. "I am seriously looking at it," he said. "Obviously you don't make the final decision until it's appropriate. Lots of things can happen in the next four years."
During his first term, the Democratic officeholder seemed to go out of his way to avoid confrontations with the governor. He repeatedly pointed out that as attorney general he serves as the governor's chief lawyer and that he did not want to damage his relationship with Deukmejian.
Van de Kamp indicated Wednesday that he has not completely abandoned this approach. Pressed on possible differences with Deukmejian, he said he wants to avoid a "philosophical debate" with the governor. He said at another point, "I have a job to do. He's a client. Actually, I like the man personally, but beyond that there is the traditional relationship that I have established, which is why I do not like to get involved in public sniping exercises."
Still, Van de Kamp pointedly criticized Deukmejian on the prison issue.
The stumbling block to opening the Stockton and San Diego prison sites, which Administration officials say are ready to begin accepting prisoners, stems from a state law requiring that a prison be located in Los Angeles County before any new ones are allowed to open elsewhere in the state.
Using Law as Leverage
Lawmakers from other counties insisted on the law because they were angry that Los Angeles County does not have a state prison. Deukmejian has been using the law as leverage to win approval of his proposed site near downtown Los Angeles.
"The governor has not been willing to go and say, 'Let me open those two prisons,' " Van de Kamp said. "He's never asked for that, has he? He could have. Why not?"
Responding for Deukmejian, Kevin Brett, the governor's deputy press secretary, said, "Legislation to open the San Diego and Stockton prisons does not answer the question of a state prison in Los Angeles County. Approximately 38% of the inmates in the state prison system are from Los Angeles County and there is no prison there. This is a fairness issue."
Brett said "the governor would not be in favor of legislation to open the two prisons because it does not result in the siting of a state prison in Los Angeles County."
Might Back Fuel Tax
Van de Kamp, commenting on other issues, said he supports modifying the state spending limit amended into the California Constitution by voters in 1979. He also indicated that he might back some kind of a tax increase on motor vehicle fuel, such as a levy on imported oil, to raise revenue for state transit projects. Those two positions also put him at odds with the governor.
Deukmejian so far has defended the popular spending ceiling, authored by anti-tax crusader Paul Gann.
Van de Kamp said, "I think there should be a limit, but it has to be one in which government can do what is necessary, and obviously we are in a position now where we are not able to do some of the things that are necessary." He specifically mentioned education programs.
The attorney general said a tax on gasoline or imported oil would raise badly needed revenues for transportation projects, particularly in traffic-clogged areas of Southern California that are at "the point of gridlock right now."