Kansas battles pay-related turnover among prison staff
Topeka Employee turnover at Kansas prisons has increased over the past five years, and the state's corrections secretary and legislators agree that officers' pay must rise if the state hopes to end a problem that's now seen as a threat to public safety.
But a legislative committee's endorsement last week of higher wages for uniformed officers raises potentially contentious questions about how to pay for them.
"We're looking at needing to put some significant money into this," Republican Sen. Forrest Knox, of Altoona, said during a corrections panel meeting last week. "We really see a looming catastrophe."
But new, more pessimistic revenue projections last week forced Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's administration into budget adjustments to avert a deficit. The governor has ruled out further tax increases since he and the GOP-dominated Legislature raised sales and cigarette taxes in July to close an earlier shortfall.
Brownback's stance — and many Republican lawmakers' lack of interest in another tax debate — could force the Legislature into considering spending cuts elsewhere, perhaps even in aid to public schools, to boost pay for corrections officers.
The Department of Corrections reported last week that its turnover rate for uniformed officers in adult prisons was 29.7 percent during the fiscal year ending in June, compared with 20.8 percent five years before. The turnover rate among officers at the state's two juvenile correctional centers exceeded 35 percent, and it was 38 percent at the state's maximum-security prison outside El Dorado.
The Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight recommended last week that the House and Senate budget committees hunt next year for money to raise corrections' officers pay after Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts said the state's compensation, starting at $13.61 an hour, is not competitive. In Leavenworth County, where the state has its oldest prison, officers in the county jail start at more than $16, Roberts said. In Ellsworth, home to another prison, manufacturing jobs can start at $18.
Roberts said staff "churning" at adult prisons means half of the entry-level officers have six months or less experience. The department said 9.3 percent of its uniformed positions are vacant and it paid nearly $3 million in overtime during the last fiscal year.
"The salaries are going to have to be increased," Roberts told the committee.
Increasing wages $1 an hour for uniformed officers at adult prisons would cost the state $968,000, Roberts said. Lawmakers could be looking at spending several million dollars a year to make wages truly competitive.
"You have to look at the seriousness of the issue and prioritize," said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican. "There's nothing more important than public safety."
Laura Calhoun, a 19-year officer who represents fellow corrections department employees on the Kansas Organization of State Employees board, is skeptical that lawmakers can follow through.
Department officials said after beginning officers get a 5 percent pay raise after their first year, there's no guarantee of additional raises later. Despite her seniority, Calhoun makes less than $18 an hour and she said other issues, such as rising health care costs and a downsizing of the civil service system, add to "a really sad picture."
The state has struggled to keep its budget balanced since Republican lawmakers followed Brownback's call to slash personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 in an effort to stimulate the state's economy. They've preserved most of those past income tax cuts, but the debate leading to the sales and cigarette tax increases earlier this year was bitter — and it split Republicans.
Masterson and many other GOP lawmakers aren't interested in backtracking on the income tax cuts. The joint corrections committee's chairman, Republican Rep. John Rubin, of Shawnee, suggested trimming aid to public schools to boost pay for corrections officers. He argued that schools don't spend money as efficiently as they could anyway.
But Democratic Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, of Kansas City, a House Appropriations Committee member, said lawmakers need to reopen the debate over Brownback's tax policy. Calhoun agreed.
"I don't believe stealing from somewhere else like education is right to do," Calhoun said. "They've got to fix their budget before we can say anything about a pay raise."