California governor stumps for private prisons

Arnold Schwarzenegger told legislators during his final State of the State address that allowing the private sector to run California’s prison system would save billions of dollars and allow the state, which faces another $20bn budget deficit, to avoid further cuts to higher education spending.

With his state facing another historic budget shortfall and the threat of more painful budget cuts firmly on the agenda, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made an impassioned appeal to the state’s legislators consider privatising California’s prisons as way to save money and spend more on education.

“I mean, if California's prisons were privately run, it would save us billions of dollars a year. That's billions of dollars that could go back into higher education where it belongs and where it better serves our future,” he told legislators during his last State of the State address as California governor, eliciting applause.

The state, which last year struggled to close a $26 billion budget gap, is facing another $20 billion budget hole for the remainder of its current and upcoming fiscal years. “Bitter as the words are in my mouth, we face additional cuts,” Schwarzenegger said.

However, the governor said he’d draw a line around education and safeguard it from further budget cuts. He proposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the state from again spending a greater percentage of its money on prisons than higher education, eliciting applause from the legislators.

“And the way we get this done,” he said, “is to find more cost-effective ways to run our prison system” and allow “private prisons to compete with public prisons. Competition and choice are always good.”

The governor provided few details of how he would involve the private sector in the state’s prison system, but he said any savings achieved should go to better fund California’s public universities, which have seen their share of the state funding shrink over the years. Thirty years ago, Schwarzenegger said, California spent 10 percent of taxpayer dollars on higher education and 3 percent on prisons.

“Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education,” he said.

In 2008, the state had 33 prisons with a population of about 171,000, an annual budget of $10.6 billion and an average annual cost per prisoner of $49,000, according to a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fact sheet.

Schwarzenegger said that other states spend far less – “only $32,000 per prisoner”- and asked legislators, “why do we have to spend so much more than they do?”

Schwarzenegger, now a lame-duck governor in his last year of power, also urged legislators not to hesitate and work with him to make “bold” reforms in taxes that some have deemed “too hard to enact”.

“If I had hesitated in my career every time I made a move because it was too hard, I would still be yodeling in Austria,” he said.