I wrote this for today’s Beyond Chron.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez has one priority this February: pass Proposition 93 so that he can remain Speaker for another six years – even if it means betraying Democratic constituencies. When Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed budget cuts last week, the Governor had at least one good idea: release 22,000 of the state’s non-violent offenders (most of whom are low-income people of color) who are overcrowding our prison system. But while Republicans predictably cried “betrayal,” the big surprise was that Nunez backed them up – saying such a move would “put the public at risk.” Did Nunez do this because the prison guards gave $100,000 to pass Prop 93?
If so, it won’t be the first time that Fabian Nunez sold out to advance his career. A while back, the former union organizer allowed the 4 wealthiest Indian tribes in California to pass anti-labor gaming compacts – after they threatened to campaign against Prop 93. As voters consider Prop 93 in February, they should wonder what the price is to keep Nunez in power?
Arnold announced some disgraceful budget cuts last Thursday – including $4 billion in education and closing down 45 state parks. But one idea he had to save money was a good one: release non-violent offenders from prison who have no prior serious or violent offenses and place them on parole. This would reduce our prison population – currently at 173,000 – by more than 28,000 next year and nearly 35,000 by 2010. It would save the state $17.9 million this year, $378.9 million next year and $782.7 million in 2010. Up to 2,000 prison guards will be laid off.
Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, an Orange County Republican, called this move a “betrayal” – and the legislature’s caucus of right-wing lunatics will certainly oppose it. But Fabian Nunez, the powerful Democratic Speaker who represents a poor part of Los Angeles, also opposed the Governor’s proposal because releasing non-violent offenders will “put our public in danger.”
A budget cut opposed by both the Speaker and the Republican caucus is likely dead on arrival. With the state budget in crisis, that means other cuts in public education, parks and social services will probably become a reality. Can we really do with even more budget cuts – after the state took $1 billion out of public transportation this year, and the Governor took $55 million out of housing for the mentally ill?
Meanwhile, Nunez has prioritized the passage of Proposition 93 so that some – but not all – members of the legislature can stay in office longer. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (i.e., prison guards) gave $100,000 to the “Yes on 93” campaign committee. Does that explain why Nunez now says releasing non-violent offenders would “put the public at risk”?
In fairness, Nunez also criticized Schwarzenegger’s budget package for not considering tax increases. Which is a good point. Arnold has consistently refused to support raising taxes on the wealthy – as he repealed the vehicle license fee and eviscerated higher education. But while the state clearly has a revenue problem, Nunez added that tax increases should be a “last resort” – meaning that, unlike his Prop 93, it’s not a priority for him.
Apparently, Nunez prefers to raise revenue by letting the 4 wealthiest Native American tribes build the equivalent of 12 Las Vegas casinos – without respecting California labor law, environmental law, or a guarantee that more impoverished tribes get part of the proceeds. The gaming compacts are now on the February ballot as Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97 – so the voters can undo the damage that Nunez and Schwarzenegger inflicted.
Why did Nunez, a former union organizer first elected to the California State Assembly with labor support decided to sell out his main constituency? The four Indian tribes threatened to spend money against Prop 93 if he did not. You would think that the Native American tribes would have rewarded Nunez – like the prison guards did – by contributing money to the Prop 93 after he bailed them out. But they haven’t, at least not yet. Nunez’s goal was merely to neutralize any opposition to his term limits initiative.
When the Democratic leadership in Sacramento put Prop 93 on the ballot, they said it would be good for progressives because it would keep them in power longer – giving them time to get more experience and be on stronger negotiating terms with the Governor. It’s why the California Democratic Party and the vast majority of labor unions have ponied up money to the “Yes on 93” campaign effort. But the question should be what is the value of letting Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez stay in office longer?
Is it worth letting the prison guards get Nunez to argue against releasing non-violent offenders who shouldn’t be locked up and are a drain on our state budget? Is it worth doing that when the inevitable result of not releasing these offenders is that the state will make more draconian cuts in education, health care and housing? Is it worth letting the four wealthiest Indian tribes get a sweetheart deal that disrespects labor law, environmental law and does not guarantee revenue-sharing with impoverished tribes?’
While our term limits law leaves much to be desired, I think we can do a lot better than another six years of Fabian Nunez.
UPDATE: I have been advised that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) contributed $1 million against Prop 93 — and that they have formally taken a position against it. This does not negate the fact, however, that the prison guards gave $100,000 to “Yes on 93” campaign — or that Nunez has criticized the Governor’s early prisoner release program.