Turning off the lights

Syndicated to Kansas newspapers Aug. 21, 2017.
Martin HawverRemember when you moved out of your college apartment, and probably because your mother told you to, you vacuumed one last time and checked to make sure nothing was spoiling in the refrigerator?
Gov. Sam Brownback did the equivalent of that final cleanup last week when he told Secretary of Corrections Joe Norwood to start the paperwork to give raises of 10 percent to correctional officers at El Dorado Correctional Facility, the state’s biggest prison…and, oh yes, 5 percent to uniformed correctional officers at the state’s other prisons.
Those raises, which are aimed at boosting employment at El Dorado where there were some relatively moderate convict uprisings last month and throwing a bone to the officers at other facilities, will cost a few million dollars, and he agreed with leaders of the House and Senate that the budget touch-ups that will be required to balance the Corrections budget will be taken care of next session.
That averted a special session of the Legislature, which leaders feared, to deal with the prison salary issue this fall, and also was probably the most solid indication that Brownback is quietly waiting for his confirmation to a State Department post dealing with international religious freedom and protection to which he has been appointed by President Donald Trump.
And, Brownback’s raise proposition, while less than many had wanted for prison workers, also essentially indicates that there’s apparently no not-yet-visible special provision that Brownback wants considered on his way out of office. Back in 2014, Brownback called a special session to deal with a flaw in the state’s Hard 50 sentencing statute but was likely more interested in Senate confirmation of his former legal counsel Caleb Stegall to the Kansas Court of Appeals under a new constitutional amendment passed in 2014.
That prison raise approved by the governor essentially means that Brownback is doing housekeeping on his way out, and trusts the Legislature to get into the scrap over those prison salaries next session when he will presumably read about the issue in the newspaper at his Washington, D.C., office.
Might note that the governor wasn’t interested in taking a leadership role on a bigger dollar issue last year, when it was learned just after the election that the newly elected Legislature faced millions of dollars of shortfall in last fiscal year, and instead of using his authority to cut spending, handed the tough decisions off to the lawmakers to wrestle with in this year’s session.
The prison raises authorized by Brownback aren’t likely to solve the problem of crowded prisons, of staff turnover that neared 50 percent in the last fiscal year at El Dorado and averaged 33 percent in the entire eight-facility corrections system. The lower raises at the other seven institutions will be an issue when the Legislature reconvenes, and the raise issue will undoubtedly spread to other state employees, many of whom got their first 2.5 percent raise this year after nearly a decade of frozen salaries.
The prison raises will become a catalyst for state employee pay consideration, which is a bigger issue in cities with high numbers of state workers than across the prairie, and which will also be compared to pay for schoolteachers, who are likely to receive raises this year due to increased state spending on K-12. No telling whether the Kansas Supreme Court will determine that the increased spending on public schools meets the constitutional “adequacy” requirement, but some districts have decided to take what is in their budgets and spend it on raises for schoolteachers.
Practically, Brownback damped the prison pay issue, or at least reduced its heat, and set an example that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who ascends to the governorship when Brownback is confirmed for the Trump appointment, is going to have to deal with for the final year of the gubernatorial term and in preparation for his race for governor…

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