09/14/2017

Fallout from funding squeeze continues in Kansas

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The dangers of understaffing and deprofessionalization are becoming ever more obvious in Kansas. On top of chronic short-staffing for essential public services, irresponsible governance is pushing the state toward a workforce without civil service protections, in which state employees in the Department for Children and Families are being asked to trade their rights for a small pay raise.

At the same time, a shortage of Kansas nursing home inspectors may well be the reason behind a new federal finding that about half of the problems inspectors uncovered in 2014 were never followed up on. This year, the agency had 18 vacancies among 61 surveyor positions, a rate of nearly 30 percent. Those surveyors are tasked with inspecting 310 nursing homes. It's well known that state oversight and inspectors' salaries are "getting further and further behind," according to a nonprofit advocacy group for nursing care.

Tax cut graphic

Kansas prisons, meanwhile, are still reaping the poisonous harvest of staff shortages, as unrest among inmates escalates. After a fiery disturbance at the Norton Correctional Facility this month, 100 inmates were transferred to another facility. This continues a pattern of shuffling prisoners around instead of providing adequate staffing by correctional officers who are AFT members. The recently transferred inmates at Norton were angry about being moved hours away from home, says Kansas Organization of State Employees Director Robert Choromanski, describing a riot in which inmates wielded weapons and set fires.

This summer, an uprising at the El Dorado Correctional Facility resulted in a daylong standoff before reinforcements, also AFT members, secured the prison. There have been a series of disturbances at the Lansing Correctional Facility, as well.

The annual turnover rate among uniformed officers statewide is 33 percent—46 percent at El Dorado. Earlier this month, the state corrections department said that 87 of 360 uniformed-officer positions at El Dorado were vacant, or 24 percent.

Kansas legislators are starting to reckon with the results of Gov. Sam Brownback's slash-and-burn tax policy. His own party overrode his veto last month and passed the largest tax increases in the state's history to pay for services they had already authorized. And Brownback himself announced a pay raise for correctional officers to help the prison system deal with high staff turnover that has endangered both workers and the surrounding communities.

But some people never learn: Brownback still believes in tax cuts. Policymakers at the state and national levels should take his folly as a lesson and refuse, once and for all, to believe in this fantasy of getting something for nothing.

[Annette Licitra]