TOPEKA, Kan. — A decision to increase Kansas corrections officers’ pay is building pressure on legislators to consider raises for all government workers, even though it’s not clear the state has enough money to fund government as it is despite a large tax increase passed earlier this year over Gov. Sam Brownback’s objections.
Budget director Shawn Sullivan told lawmakers this week that revenues must grow more quickly than currently to sustain the spending lawmakers already have approved.
Brownback earlier this month announced raises of about 5 percent for uniformed officers at prisons statewide and roughly 10 percent for those at El Dorado Correctional Facility after inmate disturbances there. A state employees union and some lawmakers said low pay — starting pay was $13.95 an hour — kept turnover among corrections workers and the number of open positions high.
Now top lawmakers in both parties said many other state employees remain underpaid, and officials with the biggest union argue the problem has gotten far worse because of rising health insurance costs. They expect legislators to consider broad pay raises after they convene their next annual session in January.
“The problem with corrections is just a manifestation of a much bigger problem,” said House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican. “We have a much bigger issue with inadequate pay across state government.”
Legislators sought this year to address state workers’ frustrations with raises targeted to workers who haven’t received them in the past five years. But 56 percent of the state’s nearly 36,000 employees weren’t eligible, including many corrections officers before Brownback heeded bipartisan calls to boost pay in the prison system.
But pay increases will cost money: The ones approved by lawmakers required about $12 million; the Department of Corrections is scraping together nearly $4 million internally to boost officers’ pay starting Monday.
Lawmakers this year increased individual income taxes to raise an additional $1.2 billion over two years, rolling back past tax cuts championed by Brownback over his veto.
A good part of the spending was an increase in aid to public schools to comply with a state Supreme Court mandate, with the justices yet to rule on whether it will be adequate. The state faces increasing costs elsewhere, including at its psychiatric hospitals and in social services.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he sees no appetite for further tax increases and that money for pay raises would have to result from efficiencies or spending cuts.
The raises for corrections workers are designed to ease staffing shortages in state prisons, particularly at El Dorado, east of Wichita, where employees are scheduled for 12-hour shifts and some are required to work 16 hours at a stretch.
But at the Department of Transportation, senior equipment operator Leonard Fishburn, of Salina, is earning $15.38 an hour and said he could be earning $18 an hour with Saline County. He said his health insurance premiums will increase at least $68 a paycheck starting in September. The state started years ago to make equipment operators’ pay more competitive but stopped in 2013 — making him ineligible for this year’s raises.
“They forgot about the rest of us,” said Fishburn, a father of three and a Kansas Organization of State Employees steward. “People can’t afford to work and live and take care of their families.”
The last across-the-board pay increase for state workers was in 2008, though there have been selected increases and a one-time $250 bonus since.
Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate budget committee, said this year’s selective raises were well-intentioned but “created more problems than they solved.”
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