BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Even as Louisiana struggles with a budget gap that threatens to shutter health services, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is asking lawmakers to give the state’s prison guards a pay raise that would cost $7 million next year.
The Edwards administration says the increase is needed to stem prison-worker turnover rates that are so high they threaten public safety. The majority-Republican House Appropriations Committee spurned the request, refusing to add dollars in this year’s budget to start the pay hike in May.
The Democratic governor didn’t announce he was seeking the higher hourly salary for the officers. Money for the wage boost was included in an Edwards administration request to allocate $10 million in unspent cash this year to the Department of Corrections.
Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor’s chief budget adviser, said $1.3 million of that money would be spent to increase corrections officer pay, starting in May. The raises — varying from 2 percent to 5 percent — would cost $7.1 million in the budget year that begins July 1 when annualized, Dardenne said.
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Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc has repeatedly raised concerns about the loss of officers at Louisiana’s prisons, saying it costs his agency millions to train new guards and pay others overtime to cover facility needs.
Of the 1,117 entry-level corrections officers hired in 2016, 814 of them left the jobs within the first year, according to agency data, a 73 percent turnover rate. Dardenne called it a “very serious problem.”
“They just can’t keep people. The turnover is horrendous,” he said.
The minimum hourly wage for a cadet, the lowest-ranking corrections officer, would rise from $12.70 to $13.97, under the proposal, a raise of $2,641 annually. For the highest-ranking position of colonel, the minimum hourly pay of $25 would rise to $25.50, a $1,040 yearly increase.
But the push for a higher hourly pay for the officers comes as Louisiana is slated to collect $648 million less in general state dollars next year because of the expiration of temporary taxes.
Some lawmakers question whether any agency should be doling out pay raises when the state doesn’t have enough money to continue its current level of programs and services.
“It is surprising to me that we would look at giving raises when we don’t have enough money to fund hospitals, nursing homes and things of that nature,” said Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, leader of the House Republican Delegation. “The time to discuss raises is when we have our fiscal house in order.”
The budget proposed to begin July 1 would steeply reduce spending on health services for the poor, the elderly and people with disabilities and would cover only 80 percent of college tuition costs through the TOPS program. Edwards wants lawmakers to meet in a special session and pass replacement taxes, but the majority-GOP House hasn’t committed to that idea — or to taxes.
Dardenne said the administration isn’t giving up on getting the pay raise added to the budget as it moves through the Legislature.
“We think it’s that important to try and make this happen,” he said.
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