HELENA – A legislative panel Friday endorsed most of the state Corrections Department’s requested $30 million budget increase for the next two years, but did not approve any pay raise or increased staffing for correctional officers at the Montana State Prison.
Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, who chairs the joint House-Senate budget subcommittee reviewing the Corrections budget, said the panel may revisit the agency’s budget next month, before taking its final votes.
“We just need time to look at all of the other agencies (in public safety), all of the money, all of the needs,” he said after Friday’s votes. “That’s why we leave every section open until the end.”
He also said the six-lawmaker panel wants to see what happens with the overall state employee pay plan, before deciding whether to take specific action on pay raises for prison officers.
The Corrections Department is asking for a $30 million, 8.5 percent increase in its budget over the next two years. Included in that request are 30 new positions and a pay raise for the 340-plus correctional officers who staff the State Prison at Deer Lodge.
Prison Warden Leroy Kirkegard said this week that the starting wage of $12.57 an hour for correctional officers makes it hard to recruit and retain people for a difficult job, and that he currently has 37 vacancies.
Although the panel Friday didn’t approve any pay raise or extra personnel or programs at the prison, it did unanimously approve nearly 60 separate budget items for the agency for the next two years, totaling more than $25 million above its current two-year budget.
Those items included inflationary increases for most programs, higher payments for prerelease centers and contracted prison beds at regional prisons in Missoula, Great Falls and Glendive and the private prison in Shelby, and additional personnel at the state Women’s Prison in Billings.
Friday’s votes are the first in the lengthy budgeting process before the Legislature. The panel’s recommendations are forwarded in March to the full House Appropriations Committee, which decides whether to roll those recommendations into the main budget bill.
That bill then goes to the House floor and, eventually, to the state Senate for further review and action, before it’s sent to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature.
Sen. Mitch Tropila of Great Falls, one of two Democrats on the six-member panel reviewing the Corrections Department budget, said Friday he was encouraged by the collaborative work by Democrats and Republicans on the Corrections budget.
“We put a lot of stuff into Corrections today,” he said. “Public safety is important; running prerelease centers and prisons costs money. Today was a good example of wise, prudent and judicious use of public money for public safety.”
Corrections Director Mike Batista said while his agency believes reasonable pay for correctional officers and other requested programs are “critical issues that need to be addressed in the budget,” he acknowledge that the panel supported many agency needs Friday.
“We’re looking forward to working with legislators as the process goes forward to ensure Montana’s corrections system is adequately funded for the next two years,” he said.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.