By John Celock
Kansas legislators have advanced raises for corrections officers, fixing an item left out of a proposed state budget.
The state House of Representatives voted Thursday to appropriate cost savings from a new lease/build agreement for Lansing State Prison for raises for corrections officers around the state. The raise was in original budget proposals but did not make the final document. The raise is on top of a 2.5 percent raises lawmakers gave a year ago to address high turnover rates in the Department of Corrections.
“This is not about giving some folks a raise. This is about solving a problem,” House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) said when offering the amendment. “We have solved problems in the past by giving people a raise. To bring their pay up to solve a problem with recruitment.”
Claeys said that his committee had previously allocated the savings from the new Lansing prison, estimated at between $600,000 to $1.6 million, towards raises, a move that was unopposed in the House Appropriations Committee. It is unclear why the language was not in the final bill.
The move to give corrections officers raises statewide came after an unsuccessful amendment from Rep. Debbie Deere (D-Lansing) to earmark the savings for corrections officers at Lansing Prison only. Deere said that the Lansing facility is facing a 37 percent turnover rate and likely job cuts with the new facility being put into place.
Deere noted that the corrections officers at the Lansing facility are part of a competitive prison workforce in the Leavenworth and Lansing region, which houses several correctional facilities. She said the employees live in many surrounding counties and contribute to the overall economy of the region.
Deere endorsed Claeys’ amendment, saying that it would help corrections officers statewide.
“I appreciate this amendment being brought forth,” Deere said. “It is important for our corrections officers getting increases and better yet statewide.”
The Kansas Legislature has addressed a series of public safety related raises in recent years, including for state troopers and agents in the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Claeys pointed to these past plans in advocating for the raise.
House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Russ Jennings (R-Lakin) said that he was opposed to the raises. He said most state employees have not received raises in years and that one class of workers should not be singled out.
“It is an absolute insult to them,” Jennings said of the non-corrections staffers.
During the debate on Deere’s amendment, House Minority Leader Jim Ward (D-Wichita) said that the likely job cuts at Lansing would mean increased workloads for remaining corrections officers. The projections for the reconstruction of Lansing Prison, show a likely downturn in the staffing amount, with less staff needed under the new design.
The Lansing project would have an outside firm constructing the new prison and the state leasing it back.
“What it says that if you want to cut the workforce at a prison as high maintenance at Lansing you should increase pay,” Ward said of Deere’s amendment.
Deere, Claeys and others argued that the corrections officers are critical to public safety and need a raise. Claeys argued against Jennings saying that the recruitment and retention issues do not exist in other agencies and is similar to other packages his committee crafted addressing law enforcement.
“I am not asking you to give people raises for the sake of giving raises,” Claeys said. “We have a huge turnover problem, as other representatives have pointed out, in the Department of Corrections and we can solve that today.”
Supporters also argued that the amendment addressed the danger that corrections officers face.
“These employees are risking their lives,” Deere said.