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Prison cooks, psychologists, teachers and others are afraid they'll lose their jobs under the budget proposal Gov. Rick Snyder plans to present Thursday.
The $1.9 billion corrections budget accounts for nearly a quarter of all general fund spending, and United Auto Workers Local 6000 spokesman Ray Holman said Tuesday he expects Snyder to slash it by $400 million. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley indicated last week that $200 million to $400 million in cuts are being considered.
Prison support staff fear the governor may outsource their jobs to private companies to save money.
"If you're cutting $400 million ... you're going to have to go after something," said Holman, whose union represents tens of thousands of state workers, including prison support staff. "We stand to take a substantial hit."
Michigan faces a $1.8 billion shortfall in the budget year that starts Oct. 1. Budget director John Nixon told The Associated Press on Friday that budget cuts will be "substantial" in the proposal for the upcoming year, though he would not provide specifics. Snyder's plan to replace the Michigan Business Tax with a corporate income tax would strip $1.5 billion more from revenues, although the governor may propose closing that gap by getting rid of billions in tax exemptions.
There's no doubt that handing some jobs performed by state workers to the private sector will be part of the equation. Nixon said privatization won't be a large part of Snyder's first budget proposal, but it's likely to be a much larger part of future spending plans.
"There are some core functions, I believe, that government's here to provide," Nixon said. "But I do think there's a lot of secondary functions we can partner with the private sector on much better."
Nixon didn't specifically mention privatizing the jobs of prison support staff, but it would be one way to trim the huge corrections budget. The AP left messages Tuesday seeking comment from the governor's office and corrections department.
A report listing how many active employees the corrections department had as of Dec. 25 shows hundreds of workers who could be affected. Although a private vendor provides health care services, the state still employs hundreds of nurses and other support staff inside the prisons.
The list shows the department has 19 clinical social workers, 10 cooks, nearly four dozen food services supervisors, 187 store keepers and 190 corrections transportation officers. It also has 176 medical officers, 39 dentists and 10 dietitian-nutritionists. The list includes more than 200 maintenance mechanics, two pharmacists, 42 pharmacy assistants, 31 plumbers, 485 nurses and nearly 80 nurse managers, along with 20 school principals, 127 teachers, 17 special education teachers, 80 trades instructors and 79 psychologists.
Michael LaFaive, fiscal policy director at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank in Midland, said some of those jobs clearly could be handed to the private sector.
"There is nothing inherently governmental about food preparation and delivery," he said, noting a June 2008 auditor general's report that said the state could save up to $38 million if it used a private contractor for food service operations.
But LaFaive added that "no one should privatize for the sake of privatization."
"It should be done when it can be done effectively," he said.
Republican lawmakers have introduced bills in the past requiring corrections officials to solicit competitive bids from the private sector for goods and services, including food and transportation services. None of the bills made it into law, and past corrections officials have said they're saving money by keeping those services in-house.
That's likely to change now that Republicans control the governor's office and the House and Senate.
Snyder's predecessor, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, closed five prisons and seven prison camps in 2009 to save money and enlarged the parole board to 15 people to more quickly review inmates who had served their minimum sentences and were eligible for release.
Snyder last week shrunk the size of the parole board from 15 to 10 members in an executive order that takes effect April 15, a move that should save nearly $500 million a year in salary and benefits. But he hasn't indicated otherwise how he plans to save money in corrections.