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Rein In the Guards' Raises

March 10, 2004

Californians across the board will suffer from the $15-billion debt bond that voters dutifully approved this month, along with future deep budget cuts designed to prevent a rerun of deficit spending. Except, that is, for the state's prison guards. As early as Thursday, legislators are expected to approve a $300-million "corrections [department] deficiency bill" that includes $174 million for pay raises for the guards.

That measure is sure to pass, in part because the guards union keeps lawmakers intimidated. One legislator, Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), is trying to do something about the guards' future raises. She could use some evidence of voter outrage in her effort to cut back a second 11.4% raise worth $234 million a year that guards otherwise will get this summer. She also has said she wants shorter union contracts in the future to help the state cope with fluctuating economic conditions.

Speier isn't getting much help. Insisting that "a contract is a contract," Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) opposes forcing the guards to renegotiate raises or other perks, including a costly expansion of sick leave. Like many lawmakers, Burton sees renegotiation as a threat to other unions that support him.

The guards union says legislators need not bother acting because it has agreed to meet with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's deputies to consider delaying full phase-in of the raises, from 2006 to perhaps 2008. That is not enough. The Legislature's active involvement in opposing the next set of raises is crucial.

The state's prison and parole system is in the mess it is in today because every attempt to "reform" it in the last two decades has taken place at bargaining tables where state negotiators were outgunned and outfoxed by the prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. Even legislative hearings on prison reform showcase its lobbying prowess, its aggressive support of compliant legislators and its opposition to reformers.

No other California union's success for its members has been so disastrous to public safety. The state's youth correctional system risks federal takeover. The adult system has perhaps the nation's worst recidivism rate.

Unless Californians demand that their elected leaders make good on their recent promises of prison reform, there will be no force in the state to counteract the guards' influence. Business as usual will reign again.

* To Take Action: Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, (916) 445-1412; Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, (916) 319-2046.

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