Sending taxpayers to debtors’ prison

Calif corrections patch

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents more than 30,000 state prison guards and parole agents, is one of the most powerful public employee unions in the state, behind the teachers unions. Its latest contract proposal hammered out with Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration may provide more evidence of that clout.

The proposed memorandum of understanding would offer a 9.3 percent raise over three years, and employees with at least 17 years of experience would receive an additional 1 percent boost in pay. The bargaining unit previously received a 4 percent raise in fiscal year 2014-15 and a 3 or 4 percent raise in 2013-14. If approved, the MOU would meet Gov. Brown’s goal of paying down retiree health care liabilities by shifting away from the current “pay-as-you-go” system to a “pre-funding” system, similar to the state’s pension systems, whereby the prison guards would start contributing 4 percent of their pay, which would be matched by the state, to a retiree health fund by 2018-19. It would also increase the vesting period by five years.

“These actions would lower state costs significantly over the long term,” according to a Legislative Analyst’s Office analysis of the proposal. But it would do so by hiking compensation costs elsewhere.

The state’s contributions to a trust fund for employees’ dental and vision benefits would increase from about $5 million a year to $19 million a year by 2017-18. Other sweeteners include a nearly 80 percent increase in correctional officers’ uniform allowances, from $530 a year to $950. While the government does routinely manipulate economic statistics to understate inflation, it is highly unlikely that dry cleaning costs have increased by 80 percent in recent years. In addition, employees at certain facilities will see their monthly housing stipends increase from $175 to $200 a month, and recruitment/retention bonuses will increase from $2,400 to $2,600 and will apply to more facilities, making an additional 5,000 employees eligible for the bonuses.

The “Physical Fitness Incentive,” currently either $65 or $130 per month, depending on seniority, would be set at $130 a month for all employees, and would be tied to future base pay increases. It would also now be included in base pay for the purpose of calculating pensions, which would seem to be the kind of pension spiking that Gov. Brown has repeatedly opposed. To make matters worse, “employees are eligible to receive the bonus regardless of their physical condition,” the LAO reports. Clearly, the point of the physical fitness bonus is not to ensure that prison guards are fit as much as it is to ensure that they are well-paid.

The administration pegs the total cost of the deal at $588.3 million by fiscal year 2018-19, although the LAO notes that this ignores that state law requires that supervisors receive salary and benefit changes roughly equivalent to those of the employees they supervise, which will cost an extra $100 million to $200 million. Moreover, it contends that the overtime provision will cost at least $30 million a year more than the administration’s estimate. “Overtime is a significant component of Unit 6 members’ compensation,” the LAO observed, averaging more than $12,000 per employee in 2015.

Correctional officers made more than $67,000 in base pay in 2014, which swelled to more than $91,000 after including overtime, lump sum pay and other pay. No wonder it costs at least twice as much to house a prisoner in California as it does in states like Arizona, Florida and Texas.

Since the administration did not provide an actuarial valuation of the proposal’s retiree health care provisions, the long-term fiscal effects of the deal are uncertain, the LAO asserted, so it is unclear whether it is a good deal for taxpayers, but we can look to the union’s level of enthusiasm for the deal for a clue. “Expect the rank and file to overwhelmingly approve the deal,” the Sacramento Bee proclaimed. That should tell you all you need to know. Chalk up another victory for the public employee unions against the taxpayers.