California's financial situation is as bleak as the recent weather in Sacramento. Given the gloominess, it was oddly inspiring to watch Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deliver a State of the State address Wednesday that was as bright as a Malibu morning.
In his speech, the governor spoke with passion and conviction about creating jobs, reforming the tax system, protecting public schools and reducing prison costs to rebuild higher education.
These are all laudable goals. But they are also ones that must be pursued with a clear-eyed candor about the chances of success. In pursuing his final policy agenda, the governor must confront his own lame-duck status, as well as a divided and partisan Legislature that is shackled by strictures voters have placed on this body. Seen in that light, the governor's sunny optimism loses its sparkle.
Consider the most startling feature of his final-year agenda. The governor wants a constitutional amendment "so that never again do we spend a greater percentage of our money on prisons than on higher education." The basic goal here is inspired. As the governor noted, the state just 30 years ago spent roughly 10 percent of its general fund on higher education, and 3 percent on corrections. Now it spends 11 percent on prisons and 7.5 percent on higher education.
Yet if the governor is serious about reducing prison costs, he must address a root cause of the problem – sentencing laws that result in an ever-higher number of inmates, regardless of whether they pose a threat to the public. Sadly, the governor again sidestepped that issue. He made it sound like privatization of prisons, by itself, would achieve the savings he and many Californians desire.
Seeking a constitutional amendment to privatize prisons will spark an epic fight – one the prison guards union will likely win. Regardless, the governor on his own can seek to shift funding from prisons to education. We'll be watching to see if he proposes such a shift in his budget address on Friday.
To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.