Senate President Susan Wagle said in a statement Wednesday that she is urging Gov. Sam Brownback to take executive action on a pay increase for corrections workers, just days after a leading Democrat called for a similar move from the administration.
Wagle said in the statement that she “witnessed, firsthand, the struggles at the prison and firmly believes the Department of Corrections and the state can move forward to address these concerns without a special session.”
Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, had recently called for a special session to be held in an effort to help the state’s troubled prisons.
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“There is also no question that corrections employees deserve a pay increase and I urge the Governor to take executive action immediately to enact those increases for this fiscal year,” Wagle said in the statement.
Melika Willoughby, Brownback’s spokeswoman, did not directly respond to Wagle’s call for the pay raise.
“The Governor’s Office is working with Secretary Norwood to examine and evaluate various options to address challenges facing the Department of Corrections,” Willoughby said in an email.
Wagle’s call seemed to closely resemble a plan proposed by a group of House Democrats in front of the Lansing Correctional Facility on Friday.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, joined by a trio of Democratic House lawmakers, had called for a pay increase of 10 percent for corrections officers that would take effect Sept. 1.
Ward said their raise proposal could give people time to see what impact it had and if it could “stop the bleeding.”
“We want the secretary to take the money from the back end of his budget this year, spend it on this pay increase and when we come back to work in January, like we do every year, we’ll have a supplemental budget that will backfill that taking of money we’re doing now,” Ward said.
Ward admitted then that budget move could cause “some heartburn” over the next few months but said, “It’s the greater good at this point.”
“It sounds a whole lot like what we did,” Ward said Wednesday of Wagle’s call. “In fact, it sounds exactly like it, with just a few different words.”
Harrison Hems, Wagle’s chief of staff, said Wagle’s statement was for “the same concept, but not necessarily pointing out that it needs to be 10 percent.”
“I think (we’re) kind of leaving that up to the governor and the secretary of corrections to figure out what is suitable for the pay increase,” he said.
Wagle’s statement said the Senate’s budget chair has agreed to hold hearings on wages for correctional facilities in early 2018, as well as deal with a budget bill to backfill the pay increases that could be made by an executive order.
In the statement, Wagle said the recent prison uprisings “cannot be blamed solely on underpayment of salaries and a shortage of workers.”
She noted that prisoners had been transferred from other locations to El Dorado and described the impact of double-bunking inmates.
Corrections Secretary Joe Norwood told lawmakers last week that there is double-bunking within the corrections system, and that includes maximum-security inmates.
“The process to improve our prison system will take time, but I am confident it can be done in partnership with the legislature,” Wagle said in the statement.