Prison workers must share in sacrifice to balance state government’s budget

Guest Editorial
The heavy lifting to develop Michigan’s budget for next year is over. But if a budget is a blueprint, someone still has to get out the hammer and nails to turn the vision into a finished product. Some of the hardest labor will take place in the Department of Corrections.

Gov. Rick Snyder and lawmakers assume they can wring out $145 million in concessions from state workers — they had once looked to save $180 million — and somewhere around half of that would come from prison employees.

Jackson Citizen Patriot reporter Brad Flory put it in perspective in a May 15 story, noting that $95 million in concessions (the original target for savings) equals $12,338 per corrections worker. Even if that goal falls to $60 million, that still equals about $7,800 in sacrifice per employee.

The head of the union representing prison guards calls that “outrageous.” Maybe that’s hyperbole, but anyone can sympathize with corrections workers and what they will have to give up. Force a household to do without $8,000 or $10,000 a year, and you can imagine the belt-tightening that would be involved.

Pay and benefits for employees, however, will be an impossible issue to avoid for the Department of Corrections and, we might add, incoming director Dan Heyns. The former sheriff and his Jackson-heavy management team must tease out savings from a $2 billion budget that prevents the state from investing in other pressing needs.

There are savings to be found within the prison system’s work force, too. Most employees, for one, do not pay 20 percent of their health-insurance costs, which Snyder has set as the standard for state workers.

Concessions also do not have to come in the form of pay cuts. There might be work rules governing overtime, sick leave and vacation time that are out of line with other state departments or the private sector. As in many workplaces, employees might not be able to cash in so easily on extra time spent on the job.

Any changes will have to take place through negotiations, where union officials no doubt will fight to preserve their bite of the apple. But if state officials don’t win concessions at the bargaining table, they will have to find savings elsewhere in the prison budget.

We have said before that blindly closing prisons is bad policy, yet state officials could be forced to look at other moves. Already, they are pushing to privatize food service and a Chelsea boot camp. Such actions will have an effect on state corrections employees.

Whether you see this as “outrageous” or not, it is reality. The hallmark accomplishment of the new state budget is its integrity; it is forcing state agencies and departments to make do with the money that is available and no taxes. No gimmicks, in other words.

That means employees at all levels of government will be forced to give up pay or to do more work for the same pay. No prison guards would enjoy that, but would they prefer to go without a job?