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Panel Approves Delta Tunnels Audit Sought By Plan's Opponents

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Critics of Gov. Jerry Brown's nearly $16 billion plan to bore two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta won a state audit of its ongoing costs on Wednesday, though state officials don't expect the audit to delay the project.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee also voted to have California's state auditor investigate prison suicides, University of California spending and certain charter schools.

The twin 40-foot tunnels, each 35 miles long, would funnel Sacramento River water south to dry farmland and millions of residents, but are opposed by delta-area lawmakers and others who say it will further harm the environment while siphoning water from Northern California.

"This is one of the largest infrastructure projects ever that the state of California is going to be undertaking," said Democratic state Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis. Yet the long-term costs remain unclear, said Wolk and eight other lawmakers of both political parties who sought the audit.

The cost is supposed to be covered by water agencies that will benefit and not directly by taxpayers, but Wolk and David Wolfe of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association both predicted that the growing price tag will increase pressure to use public funds.

Department of Water Resources chief counsel Spencer Kenner did not object and said the audit, which lawmakers approved on a 9-2 vote, won't slow the project.

Meanwhile, a recent spike in suicides at the California Institution for Women prompted lawmakers to approve a system-wide audit of suicide prevention policies and practices in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Democratic State Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino cited two reported suicides this year at the prison east of Los Angeles, while the rate was eight times the national average for female prisoners in an 18-month period in 2014-15, when The Associated Press first wrote about the spike. There were four suicides and at least 35 attempts during that period.

"This is clearly a prison in crisis," Leyva said.

Diana Toche, the department's undersecretary for health care services, did not object to the unanimously approved audit, but noted the department has already made changes at the prison.

Officials said they increased mental health treatment and suicide prevention efforts. And the wardens at both of California's major women's prisons retired last month after correctional officials said a change in leadership was needed.

The committee also took action on other audit requests:

- On a 12-0 vote, it approved auditing University of California President Janet Napolitano's spending after the chairmen of two Assembly budget committees, Democratic assemblymen Philip Ting of San Francisco and Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, said they have had trouble getting detailed information about the substantial growth in her staff and $686 million annual budget.

It's the latest of numerous recent audits of the UC system, some ongoing, and follows legislative sparring in recent years over state funding of the university system, tuition increases and the system's courting of out-of-state students who pay higher rates - itself the subject of a scathing state audit in March.

Lawmakers rejected university officials' offer to provide a more detailed accounting without going through another audit.

- State auditors will also examine school districts that are authorizing charter schools outside their boundaries. Democratic Sen. Carol Liu, of La Canada Flintridge, said the districts appeared to authorize the charters to raise money through "oversight fees," and that the charter schools they authorized have student performance scores dramatically below state and county averages.

The audit was approved, 8-1.

- The committee rejected, 6-5, a request by Republican Assemblyman Brian Jones, of Santee, to audit Attorney General Kamala Harris' handling of a firearm dealers' special fund. Harris is running for the U.S. Senate against a fellow Democrat, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.


Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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