By HARM VENHUIZEN
Associated Press/Report for America
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday he would consider rejecting a Republican budget plan that doesn’t significantly increase pay for corrections officers, prosecutors and public defenders.
Low pay and long hours have made it difficult for the state to hire new employees across the criminal justice system. More than 33% of correctional officer jobs are unfilled, and the State Bar of Wisconsin warned in January that understaffing in district attorney and public defender offices had become a “crisis situation.”
“Our system is on the brink, so we need to fund it, simple as that,” Evers said at a WisPolitics.com event Tuesday.
Evers unveiled a budget last month that would increase starting pay for correctional officers to $33 an hour and to $35 an hour for assistant district attorneys and public defenders.
Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature will rewrite the budget plan over the next four months before sending it back to Evers, who can revise it with partial vetoes or send it back to the Legislature by vetoing it entirely. That could be what happens if raises for correctional officers, prosecutors and public defenders aren’t included, the governor warned.
“That’s just a non-starter. That might cause the budget to actually be rejected,” Evers said.
Rep. Michael Schraa, the Republican chair of the Assembly Corrections Committee, called Evers’ proposal to raise corrections pay by about $13 an hour unrealistic at a hearing earlier Tuesday. Schraa said he was looking at a $7 an hour raise for correctional officers — an amount he said would disappoint employees after Evers’ proposal.
“It is extremely frustrating,” Schraa said. “It’s never going to be the $13 they have in their head.”
Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr, who Evers appointed in 2018, backed the governor’s plan and urged the Republican-controlled committee to consider higher wage increases.
“People don’t have any problems paying law enforcement officers that kind of money,” Carr said. “Corrections doesn’t get that same kind of respect, but they deserve it for the work they do.”
Currently, corrections pay is boosted by a $4 raise funded by federal pandemic relief funds, which will expire in June. Evers’ budget would make that raise permanent and add in other increases.
In addition to pandemic funds, officers working at maximum security prisons, where staffing shortages have been acute, are eligible for a $2 an hour bonus. In prisons where staffing vacancies are more than 40%, officers receive a $5 an hour bonus. Seven prisons across the state, including three maximum security facilities, meet that criteria.
In those three facilities, starting pay rises to about $32 an hour, according to John Beard, the department’s communications director. But Carr said even that amount “simply is not working” to recruit new officers.
“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to hire an adequate number of correctional officers to maintain security and help our people that are in our care if we’re not going to get more money to pay,” Evers said.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has signaled he intends to continue the $4 raise funded by pandemic relief money, citing it as a limiting factor for what Republicans will be able to do with the state’s projected $7.1 billion surplus. Vos’ spokesperson, Angela Joyce, said the speaker was unavailable to comment Tuesday but that he has also supported higher pay for prosecutors and public defenders.
Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Harm on Twitter.