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Should We Really Sink $400 Million into San Quentin?

by Indy, published

Sometimes the right idea comes along at the wrong time.

Such is the case with state Sen. Jeff Denham's plan to sell the San Quentin Prison site for enough money to build a new Death Row and contribute a sizable chunk to the general fund as well.

The Merced County Republican, and declared candidate for lieutenant governor, has pitched this idea before. Ridding the state of surplus property has been a theme for him from practically the time he took office in 2003.

This year, he's behind a 10-bill package designed to get California "off its lazy assets," as he put it, including:

  • SB 28 would require the decommissioning San Quentin and selling the 432 acres in Marin County, which Denham values at $2 billion;
  • SB 29 would require the sale of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Sports Arena land parcel, which Denham believes would bring $240 million to $400 million
  • SB 30 would direct the Department of General Services to identify at least $1 billion in additional state property that could be sold immediately to help close the state's budget deficit. It would require all state agencies to evaluate whether leasing back the space they current occupy or finding "more cost-effective space" would save the state money.

The San Quentin proposal drew a lot of attention last week when the Senate Committee on Public Safety put the bill on hold. That's probably because in the current climate, any proposal that would bring in as little as an extra dime is going to get a more serious look than it has in the past.

Committee Chairman Mark Leno said the bill was held because of a standing policy to hold any bills that would increase prison crowding. That's sound policy in the current "how much is the receiver going to make us spend" climate.

What isn't sound policy: The state's commitment to sinking $400 million into expanding San Quentin even though the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has serious concerns.

"Questions about the cost of the new Death Row complex, and the possible effect of inmate population limits at the prison, should be resolved before the Legislature considers the project further," an LAO report says.

At the least, the Legislature needs to know what construction estimates have tripled in five years, the report continues.

It's not the first time the LAO has questioned the project. The office also recommended scrapping it in 2007, in response to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget at the time.

Still, when it comes to selling San Quentin, Leno has a point about not increasing prison crowding right now, and Denham's timing for the sale isn't exactly ideal.

Marin County real estate prices have tumbled right along with the rest of the state and, combined with the questionable waiver of environmental laws Denham wants to bestow on whoever buys the property, it could add up to a bit of a giveaway for the state.

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