SACRAMENTO — Federal Receiver J. Clark Kelso put state lawmakers on notice Monday that he could not wait long for their approval of his $7-billion plan to build healthcare facilities for prison inmates.
Kelso, in testimony to a state Senate committee, told legislators that he wants to cooperate with them in his plan to bring state prison healthcare up to constitutional standards.
But his firm tone underscored the receiver's power to seek permission from a federal judge to move forward if the Legislature delays.
"I am very pressed on time," he said. "The federal court is anxious to get on with it."
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson appointed Kelso in January. He has said he wants to turn around the prison healthcare system -- in which inmates wait too long for care and get poor treatment in inadequate facilities -- in three to five years.
Lawmakers, already facing a tough budget year, reacted with dismay to Kelso's proposal, which was submitted to them by the Schwarzenegger administration on Friday.
Kelso would oversee construction of seven secure buildings to house 10,000 sick and mentally ill inmates on property adjoining state prisons.
He also would renovate existing facilities.
"It really borders on the incredible that we need to do this in a year when we're cutting schools by $5 billion," said Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), a member of the budget committee.
Sen. Minority Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) told Kelso that he found it unreasonable to treat prisoners for "every exotic illness under the sun."
Several lawmakers wondered whether the receiver's plan might be scaled back, depending on the progress of the state's separate $7.7-billion plan to add 50,000 prison and jail beds, or the administration's budget proposal to reduce the inmate population in California's overcrowded institutions through early releases and changes in parole policies.
"Can you wait until we do our budget to figure that out?" asked Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego).
Kelso said he couldn't count on the implementation of any proposals that might reduce the prison population. "I have to deal with the population that I've got," he said.
In an interview later, Kelso said he wants lawmakers to authorize him to borrow $6.9 billion -- the state would spend the other $100 million from its budget -- by June so he can break ground by next year.
"This is an urgent situation that should be dealt with ahead of other aspects of the budget," he said.
"I would hope I don't find myself in July or August or even later as part of final budget negotiations. This is something the Legislature needs to get off the table."
Nancy Paulus of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, advised legislators to scrutinize the plans carefully.
She said $2.5 billion, or 40%, of the proposed spending for new facilities is allocated for costs not directly related to construction, such as architecture, and for potential expense overruns.
Also, she said there were so few details in the proposal, including where the buildings would be located and how much it would cost to run them once built, that the Legislature would be signing away its power by allowing Kelso to move ahead now.
"This proposed legislation exempts this project from any form of legislative oversight," Paulus said.
But Kelso said he was not interested in legislation "that has a lot of strings attached to it."
He said he had hoped that by submitting "a simple package," albeit an expensive one, he would "get better understanding from the administration and the Legislature about what we intend to do."
"I don't want to come back again," Kelso said. "I'm trying to come here one time only, and not come back again."