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OAKHILL

Assembly Republicans said Wednesday they would back permanent pay increases for correctional officers to address troublesome vacancy rates at prisons, embracing an idea Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and some Republicans have previously championed.

The vow from the 19 Assembly GOP members with prisons in their districts to address compensation rates mirrors a similar commitment previously made by Evers, suggesting an area of common ground in what has otherwise been a highly fraught budget process.

For example, Republicans on Thursday are set to remove a list of marquee proposals the governor made in his budget earlier this year, such as Medicaid expansion, overhaul of marijuana laws and tax hikes on big manufacturers and high earners. The move will create a $1.4 billion hole in the budget plan put forth by Evers, and Republicans have not yet specified where they will cut proposed spending to offset the reduced revenue.

The pledge from Republicans to consider an Evers budget proposal wasn’t without partisan wrangling. Their letter to Evers and Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr was prompted by their objection to Evers’ plan to provide $5-per-hour temporary raises for officers at some corrections institutions: Columbia, Dodge, Green Bay, Taycheedah, Waupon and Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake schools.

The administration implemented the temporary pay increases as a short-term way to stem yawning vacancy rates at correctional institutions. The temporary pay bump will be in place until June 20, 2020. Corrections officials selected the specific institutions whose workers will receive pay increases based on an analysis focusing on security needs, vacancy rates and trends in recruitment and retention, among other things.

The Republicans in Wednesday’s letter, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the administration’s plan to provide select pay increases is unfair.

“All of Wisconsin’s corrections officers face challenges as they work to keep their facilities secure and the public safe while also helping to rehabilitate offenders,” they wrote. “Singling out some officers over others to receive the benefit was not well thought out.”

But Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff placed blame on Republicans for ignoring correctional officer pay increases.

“As Republicans pointed out in their letter to the governor, the vacancy rate for corrections officers doubled on their watch,” Baldauff said in an email. “We also know that at the same time overtime skyrocketed and turnover increased, while pay for our corrections officers lagged behind that of neighboring states. The governor is committed to addressing these and other serious issues in our criminal justice system that Republicans have ignored over the past eight years.”

A recent audit conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau shows the vacancy rates for security positions doubled from 6.7% to 14% between fiscal years 2013-14 and 2017-18, when Republicans controlled both the governor’s office and Legislature. The report also shows the total number of paid overtime hours increased from 1.2 million to 1.9 million, or over 50%. Corrections staff logged $50 million in overtime costs in 2018.

The average starting wage for Wisconsin’s correctional officers is $16.32 per hour, approximately $2 per hour less than the average for Midwestern states, according to the letter.

The Assembly Republicans said they would be open to supporting a “sustainable solution” rather than providing temporary raises. Evers has already put forward a proposal to offer some increases in pay.

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