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California prison labor unions cost taxpayers millions — even as prison population decreases

Despite the decrease of inmates in the prison system, the California labor unions cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Lawmakers approved a new gas tax increase. (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

California public sector prison employee unions are costing state taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars — even as state lawmakers push for higher taxes, and the state's prison population decreases.

Between 2010 and 2015, California's prison population and the number of its prison staff decreased, but the amount of money the state spent to maintain its prisons increased, according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based think tank, courtesy of  Reason.

How could that be? Well, it's because of unions.

"Despite a decline in both its prison population and the number of prison staff," the Vera Institute of Justice said, "California's prison spending rose $560 million between 2010 and 2015, primarily because salary, pension and other employee and retiree benefits continued to increase."

The study attributed this massive rise in spending to "union-negotiated increases" for prison staff and retiree salaries and benefits.

In 2015, the California prison population was 132,992, a 21 percent decrease from 2010. In the same year, the state spent a whopping $8,596,902,049 to maintain its prisons, a cost of $220 per resident. That's a seven percent increase from 2010, according to the study.

The Golden State shelled out $64,642 per inmate in 2015. In other words, the state of California spent more to house each prisoner than the average California resident's salary during the same year, which Department of Numbers pegged at $64,500. 

The numbers get even worse, though.

According to The Associated Press, the per-inmate cost in California's prison system has risen an additional 13 percent just since 2015.

The uptick in spending is part of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's new budget plan, scheduled to take effect July 1, which appropriates a record $11.4 billion to the state prison system. The budget comes on the heels of Californians voting in November for the early release of a number of inmates, which will lower the prison population even more, according to the AP.

The fact that California spent more on prisons, even as fewer people were in the prisons, is particularly significant since the governor and state legislature just approved a new gasoline tax in April to raise money for highway improvements. It is expected that the tax increase will raise an additional $52 billion over the next decade, according to the Sacramento Bee.

A majority of Californians — 58 percent — oppose the tax increase, while only 35 percent of California residents support it.

Brown said the extra money is needed to help pay for a backlog of transportation projects, totaling around $130 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Democratic governor's plea for more money comes as the state's debt is now more than $450 billion.

One Democratic lawmaker asserted that the measure is necessary because it will save lives.

"If we are able to have better maintained roads, we could prevent accidents and deaths and help have a better outcome in terms of traffic congestion," Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose, said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone from Temecula argued, however, the  tax increase will hurt businesses and low-income families.

"Are you really going to increase taxes on the families who are struggling in this state every single day?" Stone asked, the Times reported.

The new gas tax is slated to take effect in November. It will be the first gas tax increase that California has seen in 23 years.

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