US Guantanamo Empty Prison

Colorado State Penitentiary II sits vacant inside a larger correctional complex, outside Canon City, in southern Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015. Built in 2010 to hold inmates in solitary confinement, it was mothballed just two years later, as officials moved away from the practice and the inmate population sharply declined.  

The Colorado Senate on Thursday quickly moved through most of the 2022-23 mid-year budget adjustments for state agencies, giving most a final chamber green-light and sending them on to the House. 

But the supplemental for the Department of Corrections, which seeks a substantial addition of $20.3 million, raised questions for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The department's request was the major discussion in a Tuesday Senate GOP caucus on Senate Bill 113 and again on the Senate floor on Thursday.

The total of the 24 bills seeking adjustments to state agency budgets would actually decrease total state spending in 2022-23 by $208.8 million, about 1.5% of the total budget. That brings the request from DOC for a bump of $20.3 million into sharper view. 

The biggest cut is to the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which will see a reduction of $236 million, the largest of any state agency. That's mostly tied to reductions in caseload for Medicaid, due to the upcoming end of Medicaid enrollments tied to the nationwide public health emergency.

During a Tuesday Senate GOP caucus meeting, Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer of Brighton, the caucus's representative on the Joint Budget Committee, said most of the supplementals are technical. But her vote against the supplemental for Corrections, both in JBC and in the Senate Appropriations Committee, was because she believes the department is poorly managed. 

The request from Corrections is broken down into eight areas, with caseload and additional staff as the biggest driver. That's $6.2 million in general fund for 393 more beds and 16 new positions: 12 correctional officers, a teacher and three case managers, but just for the rest of the current fiscal year that ends on June 30.

Problem is, DOC already has 1,600 vacant positions, with vacancy savings of $20 million, Kirkmeyer said, adding that begs the question on why the department needs more money and more full-time equivalent employees.

Kirkmeyer also has issues with the request for 393 more beds. She pointed out that in hearings with the JBC, the department said they had 900 vacant beds at their medium-level security facilities, but about a 500-inmate overflow at the minimum-level security facilities. The department could move those 500 inmates to the medium-level facilities, she pointed out. 

And JBC members got contrary information about caseload, depending on what day it was, she told the caucus. On one day they talked about opening up another facility and on the next said a workforce shortage would prevent them from doing so. Even the JBC staff recommended against that part of the supplemental because of questions about caseload, she explained. "They need to be able to justify it...I don't think they need more beds. It's the way they're mismanaging the department and not able to explain it to us," she told the caucus. 

"I don't believe they need the additional funding...we just can't get good information out of them," Kirkmeyer said.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said he believes there is dissatisfaction with DOC  in the governor's office, now combined with the Senate GOP's concerns. While the department has serious staffing shortfalls, which is a public safety issue for both officers and inmates, he suggested a delay on the supplemental.

JBC staff analyst Justin Brakke clarified during the caucus meeting that his recommendation wasn't necessarily to deny the request but to "kick it" to figure-setting for the 2023-24 budget, in part because the department has enough money through vacancy savings - about $20 million - to cover overtime and other costs. "They have the funding to do the things they want to do," he said, but the question is whether it's sustainable through the end of the budget year, and their response would probably be "no," Brakke said. 

In his analysis, Brakke said Corrections could not explain how they came up with the caseload numbers, how they relate to existing capacity, or how they would address custody classifications. He also noted that traditionally, the governor's budget request for the upcoming fiscal year previews such changes, but that didn't happen with the submission from the governor on Nov. 1. Instead, he noted, the Corrections request showed up at the JBC five business days before they had to make decisions on supplementals. 

Kirkmeyer isn't completely opposed to everything sought in the supplemental, such as money for housing incentives as part of recruitment and retention, or dealing with medical caseload and increased costs for food, fuel, utilities or maintenance, which she said reflect normal mid-year adjustments. It's caseload — and a request for 16 new positions — that she objects to, calling it a "slush fund" during the caucus meeting.

Senate Bill 113 won approval on a 4-3 party-line vote in Senate Appropriations on Tuesday, signaling the fight to come on the Senate floor.

When explaining the supplemental, JBC Chair Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, noted the request for additional beds and the 16 positions, but didn't tell the Senate that Corrections was sitting on $20 million in vacancy savings from 1,600 already vacant positions.

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, said his caucus believes in efficient use of public safety as well as efficient use of taxpayer dollars. "We're struggling" with this request, he indicated. While they support Corrections, they need to do a better job of managing the money they have, he added.

Gardner tried to persuade Senate Democrats to support an amendment to SB 113 that would cut the request for the 16 positions and about $1.1 million in funding, both for the positions and for radio equipment contained in the supplemental.

"This is a management oversight matter, not an attack on the department," Gardner said. 

Zenzinger, who advocated for a "no" vote for the amendment, said staffing levels need to be maintained to create the correct proportion of inmate to officer. This amendment would take away the staffing component associated with those inmates. She still did not bring up the department's 1,600 vacancies or the millions of dollars the department has from vacancy savings. 

Kirkmeyer said the department made sure to mention to the JBC that two-thirds of their billion-dollar budget goes to personnel services. This amendment says to the department, "we want you to manage don't need additional FTE in this current budget year," she said. 

The amendment failed, both during the second reading debate, and a second attempt during the Committee of the Whole report that closed the second reading debate. However, two Democrats — Sens. Julie Gonzales and Robert Rodriguez, both of Denver — also voted for the amendment. 

The Senate then gave preliminary approval to the bill with a final vote likely on Friday.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.