Should We Really Sink $400 Million into San Quentin?

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.