Corrections, criminal justice questions highlight initial Senate budget discussions

Gov.+Mike+Parson%2C+above%2C+hosted+the+largest+crowd+in+his+office+so+far+to+see+him+sign+a+bill+renaming+Lindbergh+for+the+late+Rep.+Cloria+Brown.

Gov. Mike Parson, above, hosted the largest crowd in his office so far to see him sign a bill renaming Lindbergh for the late Rep. Cloria Brown.

By Spencer Norris
Missouri News Network

JEFFERSON CITY — State senators raised questions about several elements of Gov. Mike Parson’s proposed 2021 budget during the Senate Appropriations Committee’s first meeting to discuss the $31 billion spending plan, focusing on criminal justice.

Committee chair Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, asked why Parson’s proposed budget would raise Department of Corrections spending by $44 million, even as the state is trying to shrink its physical footprint.

Last year, the state consolidated Crossroads Correctional Center and Western Missouri Correctional Center, closing the former and moving inmates to the latter. Dan Haug, the state budget director, explained that even though this saved $22 million, most of those savings were absorbed by wage boosts given to correctional officers last year.

Those raises were created to improve retention, according to the budget document released by the governor’s office. Job vacancies at the Department of Corrections had more than quadrupled in previous years, according to previous reporting.

In Parson’s proposal, $1 million would also be allocated for witness protection programs statewide. Sen. Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis, one of only two Democrats on the committee, balked at the proposed amount. Nasheed said it wouldn’t even cover the needs for the city of St. Louis, given the city’s unsolved murder rate, let alone the entire state.

“We have individuals whose families are still grieving to this day because the person, the predator who preyed on their child, hasn’t come to justice,” she said.

Nasheed pointed to fear of reprisal as a key factor preventing witnesses from coming forward.

The budget also provides for a new system under which high-achieving state employees will be eligible to receive a one-time payment “to incentivize continued good performance,” Haug said.

The top 10 percent of state employees will be eligible to receive a payment of up to 5 percent of their salary, with a cap of $2,500. Performance reviews from supervisors would be used to draw that pool of employees.

Committee chair Hegeman voiced his concern over the state’s legal ability to follow through on the plan.

“I like the idea. I don’t know how you do it without it being a salary boost,” Hegeman said. “It’s a bonus, and we don’t do bonuses in state government.”

Bonuses for state employees are generally prohibited, with only a few exceptions. Question marks have gone up over the legality of blanket bonuses in the past, as when Columbia planned to give all city employees a $1,000 bonus in 2017.

Haug responded by delineating between a bonus and the proposal. A bonus is for past performance, while the state’s system is to incentivize future performance, he said.

In an interview following the hearing, Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said that he felt confident in the majority of Parson’s budget proposal.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.