By Frank Drebin
Has the Governor’s Office and the Arizona State Legislature turned their backs on the rank and file employees of the Arizona Department of Corrections? It seems as though they have. The Department has not had a pay raise in approximately twelve years. That was during Governor Janet Napolitano’s administration. Think about that. Twelve years without a pay raise. Who does that? That pay raise was initially five percent but was reduced to 2.25 percent. It would take a raise of approximately 38 percent just to bring the Department to a competitive level with other agencies. Inflation continues to erode their paychecks, morale, and confidence that the State of Arizona will do anything to correct the problem.
There was much talk regarding a recent legislative bill to obtain a 10 percent pay raise for state corrections employees but that appears to have been shelved at this point. A 10 percent raise would not begin to compensate employees for what they’ve lost to inflation over 12 years. It would at least be a starting point and a gesture that the State of Arizona hasn’t completely forgotten the men and women that put their lives on the line daily to protect the citizens of this state. What I don’t understand is why this is happening. Why is there such tentative behavior to properly compensate employees of an agency that is in the death throes of failure. It certainly can’t be a monetary issue.
During his State of the State address in January 2019, the Arizona Governor called for increasing the Arizona Budget Stabilization Fund, also known as “the Rainy Day Fund,” to a balance of one billion dollars. He spoke of using the fund to protect teacher pay raises, to prevent budget gimmicks, band-aids, and potential future budget cuts. He also spoke of preventing tax increases, budget standoffs, and government shutdowns. We should not forget that Governor Ducey initially offered the teachers a two percent pay increase,and actually held a press conference to tout that as a success. Many teachers eventually risked everything and walked off the job for approximately one month to draw attention to their plight. They ultimately prevailed with a 20 percent raise with many stipulations. He was not championing their cause; he was politically vulnerable and had to act.
He also recently vetoed a measure that was backed by Republican lawmakers that would have cut Arizona tax rates to offset higher revenue the state expects to get because of a federal tax overhaul. It would have protected state taxpayers and effectively reduced state income tax rates by .11 percent. That is tantamount to a tax increase for most Arizonans, but the Governor believes that money should go to the “Rainy Day Fund,” not to Arizona taxpayers. The state has a surplus of approximately one billion dollars, excluding the windfall from the aforementioned vetoed tax cut measure. I also must mention the underhanded $32.00 vehicle registration fee that was imposed by the Governor and legislature to pay for Highway Patrol operations rather than using gas taxes. Did you notice there was no mention of this fee during the election cycle? They didn’t raise taxes because it’s not a tax. It’s a FEE. Don’t euphemisms give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside? I feel much better referring to a tax as a “Public Safety Fee.”
The Arizona Department of Corrections is in a state of crisis. The prison population is increasing while staffing continues to decline due to uncompetitive pay, attrition, poor morale, and inadequate working conditions. A recent landmark lawsuit against the state concerning inmate health care and conditions of confinement created additional workloads that the present system is ill-prepared to handle. Staff were already working long hours with burdensome workloads, and the additional stress is pushing many to a breaking point.
An entitlement culture developed within the inmate population as a consequence of the lawsuit and also because of Department officials willing to go to extreme measures to accommodate inmates. Officer assaults are on the rise but the Department continues to under-staff work areas while propagandizing that staff, inmates, and the public are safe. The primary issue is fair, competitive compensation. Until that issue is addressed the Arizona Department of Corrections will continue to hemorrhage corrections staff, and increase spending on overtime and training academies. More disturbingly, it will also continue to place staff and the public at risk. One thing is certain: They are running out of time.