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Governor urged to intervene on care for inmates

Emergency declaration would end an impasse over $7-billion project.

June 10, 2008|Michael Rothfeld | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The overseer of healthcare in California state prisons asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday to circumvent state lawmakers by using an emergency declaration to proceed with a $7-billion plan to build medical beds.

Last month, Republicans in the state Senate blocked passage of the plan proposed by court-appointed receiver J. Clark Kelso and endorsed by Schwarzenegger to borrow money to construct 10,000 beds in up to seven facilities for ailing and mentally ill inmates and to renovate existing prison clinics.

The receiver was appointed by a federal judge as part of a lawsuit by inmates seeking to improve healthcare in prisons, which has been ruled unconstitutionally poor.

After the Senate's rejection, Kelso issued a demand that the state provide the money he needs, regardless of whether it is borrowed or comes directly from state coffers. On Monday, Kelso went further by proposing that Schwarzenegger use his authority under a prison overcrowding emergency he declared in October 2006 to execute a contract with the receiver for the construction and the funding.

"This is simply due to the Legislature's failure to act," Kelso said. "This is not the most optimal way of doing budgeting."

Kelso has been trying to proceed with his construction program without requesting that U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson force the state to cooperate. But on Monday, Kelso said, "That's where we're starting to head, without question."

Schwarzenegger previously used the state's Emergency Services Act to transfer inmates to private prisons outside California after lawmakers failed to approve measures he proposed to reduce overcrowding. Last week, a state appeals court upheld the transfers, which had been challenged by the state prison guards' union.

The receiver said he did not believe that the emergency declaration would give the governor the ability to borrow money without lawmakers' permission. But Schwarzenegger could redirect funding already appropriated, although that would be difficult given the state's budget crisis, Kelso said.

Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, said the governor's office had not decided whether to go along with Kelso's new plan.

"We think it's much better to work with the Legislature on a solution than go around them," Page said.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) said the receiver's idea would be "a complete exploitation of the governor's emergency powers."

Republican senators have said they are open to authorizing the medical beds in conjunction with legislation that would expedite the construction of regular prison beds for inmates under a plan approved last year.

The lawmakers hope that building all of the beds together will minimize chances that a panel of three federal judges now monitoring state prisons will order a release of inmates due to overcrowding.

"We think this is unnecessary," Senate Minority Leader Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto) said of Kelso's effort to go around the legislators. "We're trying to get a comprehensive solution."

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com

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