The top Republican in the Kansas Senate and the leading Democrat in the House are both calling on Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration to immediately raise pay for state prison workers.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said Wednesday that Brownback should raise pay through executive action. A group of House Democrats led by House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said Friday that the administration should increase pay by 10 percent.
Wagle did not specify how much pay should increase. But she said a budget bill would need to be passed during the regular session next year to backfill the money spent on pay raises. The Democrats have also said lawmakers could restore the funding during the session that begins in January.
Wagle said that unrest at El Dorado Correctional Facility this summer cannot be blamed solely on low salaries and a shortage of workers. She instead pointed to transfers of inmates into the prison and said the issues facing the prison can be resolved without a special session.
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The Kansas Department of Corrections moved scores of inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility into El Dorado this spring.
"Anyone who has spent time with those who are incarcerated knows that disruptions can cause a great deal of unrest. Prisoners do not take well to changes in placement, especially when they are moved to a location where having family visits becomes difficult, if not impossible," Wagle said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said Wagle’s statement was as "close to an endorsement as you’re going to get" of the Democrats’ plan.
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 then secretary of corrections to figure out what is suitable for the pay increase,” he said.
While Wagle and House Democrats are calling for a pay raise through administrative action, Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, is seeking a special session. Lawmakers in both parties agree action is needed, Ward said.
"That looks like, sounds like, bipartisan agreement on a problem," Ward said.
Wagle made her comments after visiting the prison at El Dorado. She said the chairwoman of the Senate’s budget committee, Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, had agreed to hold hearings on wages for correctional officers early next year.
A spokeswoman for Brownback thanked Wagle for her visit to the prison but did not say whether the governor would raise pay.
“The Governor’s Office is working with (Corrections) Secretary (Joe) Norwood to examine and evaluate various options to address challenges facing the Department of Corrections,” Melika Willoughby said in a statement.
El Dorado and Lansing are experiencing staff shortages. As of Aug. 1, El Dorado had 93 open positions; Lansing had 115.
KDOC has said it moved some inmates out of Lansing and into El Dorado this spring to help reduce the burden on staff. The agency has said it is attempting to balance the state’s maximum security inmate population among the three largest prisons: Lansing, El Dorado and Hutchinson Correctional Facility.
In recent months, El Dorado has experienced multiple incidents of inmate unrest. The most serious occurred on June 29, when prisoners refused to return to their cell blocks for several hours.
The inmate transfers took place as state officials hope to move forward on a project to rebuild the prison at Lansing. The state has solicited proposals from companies for the project and hopes to enter into a contract this fall.
Contributing: Hunter Woodall of The Kansas City Star