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Deny state prison guards a 5% raise, analyst urges

Times Staff Writer

Lawmakers should reject Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed 5% raise for California’s politically powerful prison guards’ union, the state’s nonpartisan fiscal watchdog said Thursday.

Correctional officers have received more than adequate pay increases in recent years that have far surpassed those of other state workers, Legislative Analyst Elizabeth G. Hill said.

The guards have been among the most influential state employees in recent years by virtue of their union’s dues-funded war chest, which is used to contribute to politicians and to run public relations campaigns touting their interests.

In the last five years, the guards’ compensation has climbed 34%, more than twice the rate for an average state worker, Hill said in her report. The guards account for 40% of the $9.2 billion in personnel costs from the state’s general fund.

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Hill said the salaries and pension improvements the union had won, in addition to other benefits, have made it easy for the state to fill vacant posts in the prisons.

“For all of these reasons, the job of state correctional officer may now be the most sought-after in the California economy,” she concluded, saying another increase is not needed.

Lance Corcoran, a spokesman for the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., said Hill’s report would sink already low morale and could provoke rank-and-file officers to stop working. He said her call to reject the proposed raise showed “contempt” for the idea that the guards’ pay should keep pace with that of other law enforcement personnel, such as state police officers, who have received comparable increases.

“I truly believe that it is going to be difficult for [the union] to prevent wildcat work stoppages by some of its members,” Corcoran said. “To my knowledge, no one at the [Legislative Analyst’s Office] has ever been gassed. No one at the LAO is required to wear a stab-resistant vest to sit behind their desk.”

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The raise proposed by Schwarzenegger was intended to sweeten a one-year package that was otherwise undesirable to the officers.

His administration is attempting to impose its own terms after a breakdown of negotiations with the union, whose contract expired in 2006.

Hill, whose report described the governor’s relationship with the guards as “completely dysfunctional,” recommended that lawmakers approve elements of the administration’s plan that would give the state more power to manage the prisons -- including monitoring sick leave, reducing overtime and assigning guards to certain posts.

But she warned that those provisions could prompt costly lawsuits by the union alleging violation of state and federal labor law.

In December, the state’s Public Employment Relations Board rejected the administration’s plan to impose its “last, best and final offer” for three years, limiting it to one.

Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Personnel Administration, said Thursday that the administration stands behind its proposal, including the raises.

But it is not clear that lawmakers will approve it.

“There’s a number of issues around which we might look to reject this,” said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who chairs a public safety committee. “It appears the administration wants to put forth the last, best and final [offer] without having gone through the negotiations.”

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The union, which has about 30,000 correctional officers, has wielded significant political clout, contributing more than $12 million to candidates and causes since 2000, according to campaign finance reports.

It donated $2 million to the campaign against an initiative, which was on Tuesday’s ballot and supported by state legislative leaders, to change California’s term limits law. Voters rejected the measure.

The donations came months after lawmakers, on the final night of last year’s legislative session, failed to pass a bill that would have circumvented Schwarzenegger and awarded the guards a raise. Corcoran argued the union had not been proficient in shaping recent policy, failing last year in its opposition to Schwarzenegger’s $7.7-billion plan to overhaul the prison system.

The governor, who has not received contributions from the union, worked with the guards on a renegotiation of their last contract, in 2004.

But lately, the relationship has been “marked by constant, time-consuming, expensive and, sometimes, strident conflict,” wrote Hill.

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michael.rothfeld@latimes.com


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