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Kansas Lawmakers Tangle Over Pay Raises For Prison Workers

Stephen Koranda

Kansas is facing a shortage of corrections workers in state prisons. Everyone agrees it's a problem, but there isn’t agreement on how to pay for a solution. As KPR’s Stephen Koranda reports, lawmakers discussed the issue during committee meetings this week.

Kansas prison guards and other corrections officers start off making less than $14 per hour. After a year on the job, they can make slightly more but that’s where their salaries remain.

That’s not a lot of money for what many people would consider a pretty tough and dangerous job, and that low pay is taking a toll on staffing levels.

“Well, in some cases, we have 10 and 15 percent vacancy rates,” says Kansas Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts.

Roberts says there are also high turnover rates. Many prisons are located in communities where local businesses pay the same rate or even more and offer better working conditions.

“They can make more money working in manufacturing or other businesses, and we have a non-normal business that we work in and that makes it a little more difficult to retain people,” Roberts says.

Some neighboring states pay similar amounts, or even slightly less in the case of Oklahoma. But Iowa and Colorado pay around $10,000 a year more to starting workers, and they have significantly lower turnover rates.

Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner spoke at a recent committee meeting and proposed an obvious solution: more money for corrections staff.

“We will not stop that turnover at that pay rate, we just won’t,” Baumgardener says.

“I kind of think this is a 'pie-in-the-sky' kind of recommendation. It’s not going to go anywhere. It’s not going to happen,” says Republican Representative Amanda Grosserode.

Grosserode points out that Kansas has a tight budget, and the state's thin budget affects more than just the Corrections Department. That's why this issue could be a preview of the coming budget battles in Topeka. Kansas lawmakers can identify needs in state government, but they’ll have to agree on ways to pay for them.

“I don’t see that we have the dollars that we would be able to recommend an increase,” Grosserode says.

So, where could you get the money to raise salaries for state prison workers? Republican Rep. John Rubin thinks the dollars could come from somewhere else: public schools and universities.

“We are spending far too much money inappropriately and ineffectively in this state on public education and other equally important core functions suffer as a result, none more so than the Department of Corrections,” Rubin says.

Education is the largest item in the state budget, but Rubin says that doesn’t mean K-12 schools, colleges and universities are more important than other services.

“Reallocate some of that money where we really need it and this is an area of persistent and significant need for the safety of the citizens of our state and the employees of the Department of Corrections,” Rubin says.

Not everyone on the committee agreed with that plan, including Republican Sen. Carolyn McGinn, who says education might keep people out of prison.

“If you invest in children’s education, help them find good jobs, that’s going to decrease the pressures that we have on our corrections system,” McGinn says.

McGinn says when it comes to budget discussions like this next year, she’d prefer they look at amending tax cuts passed in recent years.

“I hope it doesn’t come down to: we have to take from one to pay for the other. I think we need to get back to and look at what’s going on with our revenues,” McGinn says.

The committee ultimately decided to recommend raises for corrections workers, but not recommend a way to pay for it. That will likely be a common theme in the coming legislative session. Lawmakers could agree some department or state agency needs a funding boost, but then they’ll have to find where or how to get that money.