May 22, 2017 08:57 AM

Senate Finance Committee testimony provides departments and agencies first opportunity to discuss how services will be affected

The House Appropriations Committee did not consider the impact of the budget cuts it approved before sending HB1 to the full House for approval earlier this month. That fact has emerged in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee as it has spent the past week reviewing HB1 as it prepares to alter it.

There were two instances where the lack of consultation with affected departments emerged in testimony on Friday and on Sunday.

Jeff Landry
Photo by Robin May

Attorney General Jeff Landry testified on Friday morning that his office was not consulted by House Appropriations before the committee voted to cut $2.8 million from his operating budget as part of an across-the-board reduction in state spending that House Republican leaders opted to use in their approach to dealing with the state's revenue problems.

Jimmy Leblanc
Photo by Robin May

The refusal of the House to consider the impact of the cuts imposed on departments appears to be the line of attack that the less ideological, more bi-partisan Senate will use to justify the changes it will make to HB1.

On Sunday, Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy Leblanc told members of the Finance Committee that his office had one meeting with an Appropriations subcommittee early in the session but was not allowed to make any presentation to the full committee about the $9 million cut that was imposed on his department. In his presentation prepared for the committee, Leblanc said the state spend $812 million on corrections in the current fiscal year. There are 4,723 DoC employees of which 3,553 are security guards.

"So, this is your first opportunity to talk about the impact of these cuts on your department," Sen. Brett Allain asked Leblanc.

"This has been our only chance to say what's going on," Leblanc responded.

"Since 2008, our budget has been reduced by $180 million and we've reduced the number of employees by 2,000," Leblanc explained. "I can't say that we can sustain more cuts without reducing our inmate population. I believe we have reached a point where we are creating safety issues for our employees and for the public."

In addition to the cut imposed on the department going into the next fiscal year, Leblanc pointed out that lawmakers have not moved a supplemental bill to cover costs that his department incurs due to what he called "chronic underfunding."

Leblanc says DoC needs $10.6 million to cover direct costs it has incurred due to overtime and another $24 million to pay sheriffs for the local housing of state prisoners in their parish facilities.

Leblanc says the department is understaffed, which leads to higher overtime costs. "We work every day, around the clock," Leblanc explained, "We don't close on holidays."

Overtime pay for the department for the current fiscal year is at $11 million, according to Leblanc. He says correction officers start at $11 per hour. He says hiring the guards to fill the department's 235 vacancies would cost $7.5 million — a significant savings when compared to overtime. But, Leblanc notes that the department has a 75 percent annual turnover rate in corrections officers which makes keeping fully staffed virtually impossible.

"I believe we have the second lowest pay for corrections officers in the country," Leblanc said. "Only Mississippi pays less than we do. Low pay is definitely an issue contributing to the turnover."

Leblanc told the committee he is considering authority granted the department in the event of fiscal emergencies that would allow him to grant furloughs to non-violent prisoners who are within six months of completing their sentences.

In response to questioning from committee members, Leblanc said using that authority, he could release 4,691 prisoners over the course of the next year. He pointed out that doing so under current conditions would mean those inmates would hit the streets without the re-entry training and treatment tools that are included in the Justice Reinvestment legislative package.

"If we go this route, we could release 1,340 prisoners initially, then about 200 per month for the rest of the fiscal year," Leblanc explained. He said the number is far higher than the number of inmates who would be released under the Justice Reinvestment initiatives, which Leblanc supports enthusiastically.

"There is no question that our current approach to incarceration is not working," Leblanc says. "We have the highest rate of incarceration yet still rank in the top 10 in many crime categories."

The Senate Finance Committee resumed its hearings on HB1 on Monday morning at 9:30. The committee was set to hear testimony from the Department of Natural Resources, Office of the Lieutenant Governor, the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which operates inside the Lieutenant Governor's office; and the Department of Revenue.

Finance Committee chair Sen. Eric Lafleur says his committee will have a bill ready for the full Senate by Memorial Day. The session is required to end on June 8 at 6 p.m.


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