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Budget committee approves raises for state employees as stalemate continues

Amid an ongoing stalemate over transportation and education funding, the Legislature s budget committee voted unanimously Thursday to give state employees a 4 percent raise over the next two years. The Joint Finance Committee met for the first time in two weeks to tackle the governor s self-insurance plan, which it rejected, employee raises and prison funding. Republicans who control both the Assembly and Senate have reached an impasse over funding for K-12 education, transportation and tax cuts.

Budget committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said the Assembly and Senate aren t far apart on education funding, particularly increasing funding for school districts with historically lower funding levels. However, he said there remains disagreement over how to fund transportation.

I m not thinking education is going to be that much of a stumbling block, Nygren said. I do think their position with (using general fund dollars to support borrowing for transportation) is going to be a stumbling block. The impasse will more than likely push final approval of the budget past the July 1 deadline for the new fiscal year. That means funding will continue at current levels, similar to what happened in 2015 when budget deliberations pushed into the first two weeks of July.

State employee raises

Walker proposed two 2 percent general wage increases for state workers, one on Sept. 30, 2018, and another on May 26, 2019, for a cost of $15.4 million in the second half of the biennium. However, the proposal didn t cover University of Wisconsin System employees, who would have received raises under a separate $15.5 million merit pay system controlled by the Board of Regents. The Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to provide the funding through the normal compensation system. However, the funding only covers 70 percent of the 4 percent raise. The remaining amount would typically be provided through a tuition hike, but the Legislature plans to extend a tuition freeze. A separate legislative committee will decide how to distribute the UW System raises.

UW System President Ray Cross thanked the committee for the largest investment the state has made in UW employees in more than a decade. The raises come as general wage increases for state employees have lagged the rate of inflation, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. Over the past decade, general wages have increased cumulatively by 7.5 percent while inflation has increased 18.7 percent. That doesn t account for employees paying more for pension and health care premiums starting in 2011 under Act 10.

More funding

for corrections

The committee also addressed overtime for prison guards and funding for the troubled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prisons in northern Wisconsin. Overtime costs have been an ongoing issue for the department. Last year there were 629,800 overtime hours paid out, compared with an average of 370,700 hours on average in the previous three years.

Walker has proposed $108 million in additional funding to cover overtime costs over the next two years. The committee amended his proposal based on historic averages to shave the cost down by $8 million. Democrats proposed prohibiting prison guards from working overtime for more than two consecutive shifts, raising concerns about safety. Republicans rejected the motion without comment. To address concerns about turnover, Republicans added to the budget a proposal to give prison guards a lump sum bonus after 10 years of service and every five years afterward, ranging from $250 up to $1,000.

The committee also addressed an anticipated inmate population increase due to tougher drunken driving penalties adopted last year. Walker projected the prison population increasing to 23,233 next year, though the fiscal bureau said the figure could be 23,888, costing $6.6 million more. Walker proposed adding 16 positions to expand the state s earned release program for about 240 inmates, saving $3.7 million. The committee added an additional five positions, for a total of 21, saving $5 million, and expanded the program from addressing substance abuse issues to addressing issues related to the inmate s criminal behavior. The committee also agreed with Walker s proposal to enhance mental health and other health services in state prisons, expand job-training opportunities for inmates and require guards at maximum security facilities to wear body cameras.

It voted 12-4 to cut in half about $1.3 million Walker proposed to expand a re-entry program in northern Wisconsin. Walker s budget adds about eight positions at a cost of $1.3 million over two years to improve staffing ratios at Lincoln Hills, which has been under federal investigation for two years related to allegations of rape and abuse of inmates. Democrats sought to add a total of 42 positions to bring the state into compliance with the staff-to-inmate ratios under the Federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, but Republicans kept Walker s proposal in place. Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, blasted Republicans for not adding more staff.

I find it challenging to believe that people don t understand the importance of meeting these requirements, Taylor said. In this budget you have not made it a priority to get to the bottom of what happened.

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, defended the employees at Lincoln Hills, noting an inmate who had two toes amputated after a guard slammed a door on his foot, resulting in a $300,000 settlement, later stole a car and crashed it into a house.

These are not angels that are coming into Lincoln Hills, Tiffany said. It s a tough situation and these people working up there do the best job they can.

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