Panel votes for new prison, against raises

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The opening of a new prison won out over a small pay raise for state employees in a close vote Tuesday by the House Budget Committee.

Faced with a tight budget and attempting to cut costs wherever possible, committee members considered a proposal to ax $29.9 million for the scheduled opening of the Bonne Terre prison and instead use the money for state employee pay raises.

The proposal by Rep. Quincy Troupe -- supported by an unusual mix of conservative and liberal lawmakers -- failed 16-12.

As it stands, the proposed $19 billion budget for fiscal 2003 includes no money for employee pay raises. The opening of the Bonne Terre prison, which already is built, is one of the larger new expenses.

Plans call for the first inmates to arrive at the Eastern Reception and Diagnostic Correctional Center in Bonne Terre in January 2003 -- about the time that the state's existing prison beds are expected to fill up.

Some amendment supporters said the state could ease its prisoner population by better treatment and more use of electronic home monitoring and work-release programs.

Money saved from not opening the prison could have provided a roughly $600 annual pay raise to most state employees -- not a lot, but enough to "increase their morale and give them access to a better quality of life," said Troupe, D-St. Louis.

Among those voting against the amendment were some who have expressed sympathy for state employees, already denied a pay raise this year. For them, the vote was more about the state's prison system.

"We have an empty prison" at Bonne Terre, said committee chairman Tim Green, D-St. Louis, who spoke and voted against the proposal, "and we have overcrowding" at existing prisons.

The state is spending about $8 million this year under the lease-purchase agreement for the empty Bonne Terre prison, which is projected to cost $168 million over 20 years.

"The best business decision and the fiscally responsible decision is to open the prison," said Rep. Glenda Kelly, D-St. Joseph, chairwoman of the corrections appropriations committee.

Included in the first-year costs for the prison is about $13 million for one-time equipment purchases, such as beds and clothes, said Gary Kempker, director of the Department of Corrections.

The rest of the money would pay for the gradual hiring and training of staff and the cost of housing prisoners from January through July 2003, which is the end of the fiscal year.

At full capacity, the prison could house 2,684 inmates.

In the first half year, the Corrections Department plans to open 820 beds in the reception and diagnostic unit, which would be the first stopping point for new prisoners from the eastern half of the state.

The department also would open 864 general population beds, initially for lower security inmates. Eventually the prison is to house maximum-security prisoners.

Kempker said the state's prison population is growing at an average of 3.3 people per day, or about 1,200 people a year.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: