California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered his final State of the State Address this week amid the harshest economic downturn since the Great Depression. With less than one year to go before he is termed out of office, Schwarzenegger and the state that elected him face monumental challenges.
The address was lean on any innovative ideas that could pull the Golden State out of its fiscal nosedive. But the Governor unveiled two banner proposals, the first his plan for a constitutional amendment to mandate greater spending on universities than prisons, the second his plan to privatize prisons.
According to the Governor, 30 years ago 10 percent of the state’s general fund was allocated to higher education, 3 percent to prisons. Now, prisons receive almost 11 percent of the budget, and higher education 7.5 percent.
“Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future,” explained Schwarzenegger. “What does it say about a state that focuses more on prison uniforms than caps and gowns? It simply is not healthy.” Schwarzenegger boldly vowed, “…never again do we spend a greater percentage of our money on prisons than on higher education.”
State Senator George Runner disputes these numbers, reporting that in the most recent budget, the state spent 7.3 percent of the general fund on prisons and 9.7 percent on higher education. The Governor’s staff then admitted that excluded from the numbers in his speech was state spending on community colleges. Most community college students and teachers would consider themselves part of higher education in California.
But even going with the Governor’s numbers, in order to invert the current ratio of greater spending on prisons than higher education, the state must either increase spending on education—an impossibility considering a $20 billion budget shortfall—or decrease spending on prisons. The Governor proposed privatizing prisons to cut costs and thereby meet his goal to spend more on education than incarceration.
Schwarzenegger reasoned, “California spends $50,000 per prisoner. By comparison to the ten largest states, they spend $32,000 only. They spend less and yet you do not see federal judges taking over their prison health care system. Why do we have to spend so much more than they do?”
California’s prison system has been a chronic headache for Schwarzenegger and the legislature, making headlines as the federal judiciary took over the prisons and ordered the state to rectify prison overcrowding. Last year a federal judge ruled the state must release almost a quarter of the state’s prisoners.