February Legislative Report by Todd Tennis of Capitol ServicesPrisoner Food Protest Re-Raises Privatization Issue
In mid-February, 200 prisoners at the Kinross Correctional Facility staged a protest over the newly privatized food service. The protest was peaceful, and the prison administration allowed it to happen uneventfully. The issue centered on meal choices (or the lack thereof) and the quality of the food which some prisoners claim has deteriorated since a private prison company, Philadelphia-based Aramark, took over food service.
The privatization of food service has been a hugely contentious issue. The Department of Corrections originally rejected the privatization on the basis that it did not save enough money, but under pressure from members of the Michigan House and Senate, the contract was reconfigured to obtain savings projected at $12 to $16 million per year. The contract was put into place on December 8, and prisoners have been receiving meals via the Aramark Corporation since then. The move led to the loss of 370 state jobs, though many who were displaced either retired or were shifted into other positions within the Department.
Allegations of increased complaints concerning security breaches and an increase in contraband since Aramark took over have surfaced in recent news articles, and some Aramark employees have already been terminated for conduct such as over-familiarity with inmates. It is too early to tell whether or not such complaints will rise to the level of the state terminating the contract, but similar prisoner protests in other states where Aramark provides food service, like a recent one in Indiana, could get the attention of Lansing lawmakers.
Bill Introduced to Track
UAL for State Pensions and Health Care
Under the Management and Budget Act, the Governor’s office is required to submit various pieces of information along with the annual budget proposal. This information includes estimates of state spending that goes to local governments and the number of FTE positions funded by individual line items in the budget. Senate Bill 792, sponsored by Senator John Proos (R-St. Joseph), would add an additional requirement to the act. The bill would require the information to include the unfunded accrued liabilities for health care and pensions for each department of the state, as well as the Legislative and Judicial branches.
The phrase “unfunded accrued liability” has become a major bogeyman for many policy makers. “Legacy costs” are largely blamed in some circles for everything from Detroit’s fiscal woes to the bankruptcy of two of the Big Three automakers. Tracking unfunded accrued liabilities is not a bad idea, and in fact government accounting standards already require it. By this standard, Senate Bill 792 is not, in and of itself, a bad piece of legislation. It is worrisome, however, to see policy makers focus on UAL, since that often signals a pending attempt to cut benefits to employees.
In truth, focusing on unfunded accrued liabilities is a double-edged sword for employees who are depending on pension and retirement health care benefits. In systems like the State Employees Retirement System that has relied on a “pay as you go” system of funding retirement health care, the projected unfunded accrued liabilities are potentially quite large - large enough, perhaps, to prompt legislative action. If that action involves setting funds aside to prefund retirement health care, then state employees will be better off in the long run. However, it is just as likely that the legislative action to reduce the unfunded accrued liability would be to further curb retirement health care benefits – something that could be devastating for state workers who have been depending on it.
MAGE Still Waiting for Meeting to Address KPH Concerns
After a scheduled January meeting with state lawmakers to discuss serious problems taking place at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital was cancelled, MAGE was hopeful that it would be rescheduled promptly. Unfortunately, legislative staffers working to bring several Kalamazoo-area legislators together have been unsuccessful in scheduling a new date. MAGE is now reaching out to individual area legislators so that members working at KPH can outline their concerns. Representative Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) has expressed a willingness to try to meet with KPH staff in Kalamazoo, and we are working to set up that meeting.