Syndicated to Kansas newspapers Aug. 7, 2017

Martin HawverIf you buy the pretty strong premise that the reason El Dorado Correctional Facility prisoners are acting up is that there aren’t enough corrections officers at the facility to maintain order, well, there are solutions.
Probably the best solution is relatively simple—pay the corrections officers enough that jobs at El Dorado become desirable. Might take a 20% pay raise which is about $20 million a year, or maybe just 10 % at half the cost, but money can probably fix this.
Not hard. A governor can just order up the pay raises, and include that extra money in the touch-up budget for this fiscal year, which the Legislature will consider in a first-day of session budget amendment that could be approved by early February.
But…the real question—again, if you buy into the premise that Kansas’ low pay is the reason that the Department of Corrections can’t hire enough guards—is who does it and when.
Be assured that there’s going to be some confusion, there’s going to be a lot of information needed, but it does present someone, either Gov. Sam Brownback or Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a chance to win political points for solving a problem before it grows up to be the theme of next year’s “Orange is the New Black” season.
The apparent problem is that correctional officers now start at an annual salary of less than $29,000, and at that price, they’re hard to hire. Turnover rates for those guards is about 33% a year statewide and 46% at El Dorado and 37% at Lansing.
That’s more turnover than at other correctional departments in the area—Colorado pays $40,488 and has turnover of 16.2%, Iowa pays $40,186 and has a 12 % turnover. Oklahoma, which pays $26,573 a year, has a turnover rate of 38% statewide.
Now, if raises are the solution, and if things stay relatively quiet at El Dorado, the prison will likely attract enough new employees to reduce turnover and to sharply reduce the overtime being paid for those correctional officers who are working 12-hour days and seeing more time-and-a-half pay than any other prison in the state.
So, who gets to solve the problem? The governor can just order the pay raises, shuffle around money and after the six-week training period for correctional officers, maybe we’re back to where inmates aren’t going to be as eager to cause problems. Maybe.
Brownback—who remember last year wouldn’t make budget adjustments himself to solve a $200 million-plus budget shortfall—could make a short-term adjustment to pay for the raises, and leave it up to the election-year Legislature to work out the details.
He could hope that there aren’t any big uprisings that result in injuries or deaths, until he is likely to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate as President Donald Trump’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom probably in September or October, allowing move-up Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to solve the raise issue and win some leadership points should he decide he’d like to run for governor next year.
Or, the calls from legislators for a special session so everyone—especially House members with districts which include prison employees—can take part in the rescue might be OK’d by Brownback, which essentially cuts whoever is governor out of the rescue plan.
We’ll see who takes the leadership role here…and hope it comes before there is a major uprising with injuries…