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Budget Crisis Threatens Lancaster Prison Opening : Government: The loss of $30 million in operating funds means the new facility could stand empty until October, 1993.


SACRAMENTO — The new state prison at Lancaster, which is almost completed, probably will stand empty until late next year because the state's deepening financial crisis has left the prison without operating funds, legislative aides said Tuesday.

A joint Assembly-Senate conference committee removed $30 million for the prison from a still-fluid working version of the state budget last month, said Geoff Long, a consultant to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

Without the $30 million, the Lancaster prison cannot open until October, 1993, and it is highly unlikely that the legislators will reinstate the funds, he said. "I can't envision a scenario by which they would allow Lancaster to open as originally planned, just because the fiscal situation is so bad," Long said.

A state Department of Corrections spokeswoman acknowledged the legislative action but said that as of now the prison is still scheduled to open this October.

In recent weeks, prison officials have been conducting community tours of the nearly completed, 2,200-bed institution, built for $207 million to relieve overcrowding in other state prisons.

Long said the state is likely to delay in part because growth in the prison population has slowed. Although the state's prison population last October reached 180% of design capacity, Long said the delay would not have a big effect on other prisons, estimating that opening the Lancaster prison would siphon off only 6% of the state's prisoners.

The prison, mandated by the Legislature in 1987, was opposed by Antelope Valley civic leaders who fought the choice of a site in west Lancaster. The prison location became part of a 1987 "pain-for-pain" political compromise that gave Los Angeles County its first two prisons--one in the heavily Republican Antelope Valley and the other in predominantly Democratic East Los Angeles.

Despite the budget conference committee action, Department of Corrections officials said it is unclear whether the Lancaster prison's opening will be changed. "Officially, we're still scheduled to open in October of 1992," said Christine May, an information officer.

May said the department does not have a position on the conference committee action and has "no clear information as to what is going to happen" with the opening of the Lancaster prison.

But the opening appeared to be caught in the financial squeeze facing the state as it prepares a spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The administration of Gov. Pete Wilson has estimated that the state will be about $11 billion short of what it needs to pay off this year's deficit, rebuild a prudent reserve and maintain all programs at their current levels while meeting expected growth in prison populations, school enrollment and welfare rolls for another year.

To make up the shortfall, the Wilson Administration has said most state departments should be prepared for cuts of up to 30%. As a consequence, the Department of Corrections could face budget reductions of up to $747 million, according to the nonpartisan legislative analyst's office.

Craig Cornett, director of criminal justice affairs in the analyst's office, said that among the steps that could be taken to reduce the department's budget are to delay opening the Lancaster prison and another new institution in Delano in Kern County. Putting off Delano's opening for a year would save the state an additional $30 million.

Last month, the budget conference committee adopted the Assembly's proposed state budget, which delayed the Lancaster opening date by a year. The action, which is still subject to revision, was taken on a 5-1 vote. Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) was the lone dissenter.

Cornett said the money would be saved by postponing the move of prison officials to the Antelope Valley, slowing the hiring of new staff members and delaying the purchase of supplies needed for prisoners.

Assemblyman Phillip Wyman (R-Tehachapi), who represents Lancaster, said he was unfamiliar with the action of the budget conference committee but criticized any delay in moving inmates into the new prison. "I see no public policy being served by allowing a completed state prison to remain empty," Wyman said.

"I just don't think its sensible," said Wyman, noting that the state has begun to fill prison jobs.

Lawmakers are sensitive to the needs of communities where prisons are located, Long said, "But the fact is we don't have the money to open it."

Times staff writer John Chandler contributed to this story.

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