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GOP approves $37m in pay raises for prison workers

By TODD RICHMOND Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Legislature’s budget-writing committee signed off on a Republican plan Tuesday that would give prison workers nearly $37 million in raises in an effort to retain and recruit more guards.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget had earmarked about $23.7 million for prison worker raises. His plan coupled with a 2% across-the-board raise for all state workers in each of the next two years would increase guards’ starting wage from $16.65 to $18.22 an hour.

Republicans on the budget committee set aside Evers’ proposal Tuesday and introduced their own plan that calls for spending $36.8 million on prison raises. Their proposal would move the starting wage to $19 an hour, raise upper-level salaries accordingly and provide lump-sum bonuses for longevity. The committee approved the plan 11-4. All four Democrats on the committee voted against it.

“It’s a major investment,” said Rep. Mark Born, who authored the plan. “It’s certainly not something that will solve every problem with staffing, wages won’t do that alone, but it’s an important part of the investment we need to make in corrections.”

The committee vote inserts the plan into the budget and removes Evers’ proposal from the document. The panel will spend at least several more weeks revising the budget before sending it to the full Legislature for approval.

The Department of Corrections has been struggling for years to retain and recruit workers. A state audit released this month found the turnover rate for guards grew from about 18% in fiscal year 2013-14 to 26% in 2017-18.

The vacancy rate for security personnel, including guards, more than doubled over the five fiscal years, driving an increase in overtime payouts, the audit found. About $23.5 million of 2017-18 overtime wages went to cover vacant positions, a 34% increase over 2015-16, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

The audit also found the $16.65 starting wage for Wisconsin prison guards was the second lowest among seven Midwestern states in August 2018. Evers this spring launched a one-year pilot program that provides a $5-an-hour raise for workers at six prisons, including Waupun, Columbia, Green Bay, and the youth prison outside Irma.

Under the GOP proposal, workers at those prisons wouldn’t enter the new pay scale until the second year of the budget begins in mid-2020.

Committee Democrats accused Republicans of neglecting prison workers and forcing them to work overtime during former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s eight years in office. They also attacked Republicans for proposing no new programs to reduce recidivism and whittle down the burgeoning prison population. Every adult correctional institution in the state was overcapacity as of this past April, according to the fiscal bureau.

“Our corrections system is a shambles,” Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison said. “You created this crisis.”

Born countered that Evers’ budget offers no initiatives for reducing the prisoner population even though the governor campaigned last year on cutting the population in half. He accused Democrats of spouting “constant rhetoric with no solutions.”

Evers’ budget doesn’t allocate any money for a new prison. It does, however, call for borrowing $15 million to build three new 144-bed barracks for inmates. Two barracks would be built at Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls and one at Taycheedah Correctional Institution, a woman’s prison in Fond du Lac.

Republicans removed the proposal from the overall spending plan Tuesday with no explanation. After the committee adjourned, Rep. John Nygren, one of the panel’s co-chairs, told reporters the committee may revisit the idea when it considers the state capital budget. It’s unclear when the panel may take that up.

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