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L.A. Prison Funds Cut by Legislators : Budget: 900 prison guard spots also targeted by conference committee. Both actions could be overturned, however.


SACRAMENTO — Democrats on a Senate-Assembly conference committee, brushing aside Republican objections, cut $121.8 million in bond funds for the downtown Los Angeles prison and shaved 900 prison guard slots from the state system in budget deliberations Friday.

Both cuts in the Department of Corrections share of the budget could be overturned as work continues on a $56-billion state spending plan for the 1990-91 fiscal year. But in the meantime, deletion of money for the central city prison became another obstacle placed before supporters of the facility.

Los Angeles-area legislators, feeling pressure from their constituents who don't want the prison built, put strong pressure on the conference committee to take the money out of the budget. The vote on the Democratic majority committee was 4-2, along party lines.

Unless the Legislature approves a new appropriation for the prison by July 19, when a three-year spending authority on the bonds expires, the state cannot put more money into the project. So far, the state has spent $5 million in pre-construction costs.

Technically, money to build the prisons would come from bond funds. But general purpose tax revenues are used to make principal and interest payments on the bonds, as well as pay the cost of staffing and administering the prisons once they are built.

The action, if it stands up, also would place a legal cloud on a prison being constructed in Lancaster. A law passed by the Legislature declares that the Lancaster facility cannot open until ground is broken on the proposed prison just east of downtown Los Angeles.

Opponents of the cut in prison guards said the additional officers are needed to help control the 11,000 new inmates expected to enter the state's prisons next year. They warned of dangerously low staffing levels if the guards are not added.

The $2.3-billion Department of Corrections budget proposed by Gov. George Deukmejian called for an increase of 2,627 prison guards to keep up with the inmate population. By trimming 900 guards from the total, budget cutters on the conference committee figure they can save $42 million.

The cut came after intense debate and another partisan vote of 4-2. Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), one of the two Republicans, angrily characterized the action as risky and "irresponsible" given the rise in the inmate population.

Although both actions are subject to reversal during later budget deliberations, Democrats said they were voting their convictions, rather than simply throwing a new issue out on the bargaining table. Two of the four Democrats on the committee, Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (Santa Clara) and Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (San Jose), say they will provide no further support to expand the prison system because they consider it a failure since the crime rate continues to rise despite the system's rapid growth under Deukmejian.

The budget cuts are expected to have a hard time getting by Deukmejian, who has made the Los Angeles prison a key part of his statewide prison expansion.

Deukmejian is engaged in a series of private meetings with legislative leaders from the Senate and Assembly in an effort to close a $2.9-billion funding gap, although a meeting scheduled for Friday was put off until Monday. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) cited a scheduling conflict.

Although tax revenues are expected to grow by about 7% in the 1990-91 fiscal year, expenditures required to maintain current services are projected by Deukmejian to grow by 11%; thus, the $2.9-billion gap.

Despite the prison cuts, budget negotiators had done virtually nothing by the end of the week to dent the gap between revenues and expenditures that they must close by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

Friday, they made cuts totaling about $18 million. But that only brought them back to where they were the day before when the problem grew by $18 million because lawmakers added more than they took out.

One of the deepest cuts was delivered to Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp's fledgling $22.4-million anti-cocaine "CrackDown" program, leaving it with only $4.6 million. Van de Kamp appealed Friday to police chiefs and sheriffs in the districts of the legislative budget writers to pressure their lawmakers to restore the state funds.

A spokesman for Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who carried the bill last year creating the program, said Roberti will seek to restore "some of the funds but he knows in this austere budget he can't get them all back."

Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this report.

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