Top GOP lawmakers hold up nearly $10M for Kansas prisons
photo by: John Hanna/AP Photo
TOPEKA — Top Republican legislators on Wednesday blocked nearly $10 million that Kansas corrections officials argue they need to deal with prison overcrowding and said lawmakers might reject Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s choice to be the prison system’s next leader.
The actions by Republican legislative leaders decrease the number of male inmates that the Department of Corrections can transfer for now to private prisons out of state and halt the agency’s plans to move female inmates into empty space at a juvenile detention center in Topeka.
Top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature did agree to release about $18 million, including money for pay raises for corrections officers. They said they’re still addressing the troubled prison system’s most pressing problems, with future discussions of the other spending still possible.
GOP leaders said they have reservations about the department’s plans to house 600 inmates outside Kansas and worry about conditions in private prisons generally. They questioned whether the juvenile correction project was legal and complained repeatedly that Kelly’s administration waited until late April to fully outline its plans.
But recently retired Interim Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz said, “I think it’s going to make things more dangerous.”
Legislators provided nearly $36 million in additional funds for prisons in the next state budget. However, Republicans worried enough about how it might be spent to require Kelly to convene a meeting of eight top legislative leaders, six of them Republicans, and have them sign off on releasing the bulk of it.
Their meeting Wednesday came with Republican leaders and Kelly increasingly at odds, following her vetoes of two GOP tax relief plans and top Senate Republicans thwarting Medicaid expansion.
It also came less than two weeks after Kelly announced her appointment of Jefferey Zmuda, the deputy director of Idaho’s prisons system, as the next Kansas corrections secretary. He plans to take over in July.
But Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican, told Kelly publicly Wednesday that she is not sure Zmuda can win Senate confirmation. A state-court-judge in Idaho criticized Zmuda in a March ruling, saying he had given “disingenuous” testimony in a lawsuit over access to that state’s execution records.
Wagle said she is concerned about transparency issues with Zmuda planning to take over the Department of Corrections. Lawmakers are out of session until January, but Zmuda would be forced to step down if the Senate won’t confirm his appointment.
“He would not be confirmed if we voted today,” Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican, told reporters.
Kelly firmly stood by Zmuda’s appointment. The governor said she and her staff knew about the Idaho judge’s comments and discussed them with Zmuda, and he acknowledged that issues related to the lawsuit were not handled as well as they could have been. She said once lawmakers meet him they will see that he is “eminently qualified.”
“He knows what the problems are here in the state of Kansas and he is up for the challenge,” Kelly told reporters.
The Kansas prison system has been plagued with staffing shortages even as its inmate population has continued to grow. The prison system had multiple riots in 2017 and 2018. Extra funding released by legislative leaders Wednesday will 15.9% pay raises for uniformed corrections officers across the prison system.
Werholtz told legislative leaders Wednesday that since an emergency was declared in February at the state’s maximum-security prison outside El Dorado, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Wichita, employees there have worked more than 2,000 16-hour shifts.
The state has about 10,000 inmates in its custody and the official capacity of its prisons is about 9,900 — after boosting the capacity figures in 2017 by declaring that inmates could be housed two-to-a-cell in much of the system, despite some officials’ past misgivings.
The next state budget included $16.4 million to allow the department to house up to 600 male inmates in county jails or out-of-state prisons. The department is pursuing a contract with a private prison in Arizona that its officials declined to name Wednesday.
But top Republicans on Wednesday blocked $6.6 million of the funds as some of them said they dislike using private prisons. Kelly said it’s not ideal but, “I just don’t think we have much of a choice.”
The department also wanted to move 120 inmates from the state’s prison for women in Topeka to the juvenile corrections center there. Lawmakers set aside $3 million.
The budget says the money was for “renovations.” Department officials said the need for renovations at the juvenile center is minimal and wanted instead to spend the funds on staff and programs. GOP legislative leaders concluded that the budget law wouldn’t allow it and blocked the funds, stopping the project altogether.