OKLAHOMA CITY – A Republican lawmaker said he’s furious after legislators approved raises for private prison employees, but then said they can’t afford increases for workers already on state payrolls.

State Rep. J.J. Humphrey, R-Lane, said he’s asked Gov. Kevin Stitt to veto part of House Bill 4160. The measure calls for nearly $1.2 million in taxpayer funds to be spent to equalize employee pay at the contracted private correctional facilities statewide.

The measure passed the state House 98-0 and the state Senate 42-1.

Humphrey, who initially voted for the measure, said the raises were tucked into a larger Department of Corrections funding bill, which was pushed through in the final days of session. He thought he was funding raises for more than 400 public correctional employees and teachers, but didn’t notice the section also awarding increases to the private sector.

“It’s infuriating,” said Humphrey, who chairs the House’s public safety committee. “It makes me so mad I can hardly see straight. Let’s not tell people we can’t give (raises) because we don’t have the money then turn around and give it to private.”

Humphrey questioned why private prison employees are getting raises with public dollars when lawmakers are still struggling to increase compensation for other state employees.

“It’s very disturbing that we would give a $1 million raise to private prison employees before a large majority of our (public) employees,” he said.

State Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, who authored the measure, said the Legislature was trying to equalize pay to ensure private prisons are adequately staffed.

He said recent raises for public correctional officers did not cover their counterparts staffing private institutions.

“That creates a difference in pay,” Thompson said. “They try to stay together in pay as much as possible.”

It’s critical to make sure private facilities stay operational, and lawmakers were trying to take care of both types, he said.

“(There was) nothing nefarious toward our people,” Thompson said. “We need to do more, and I understand that. If I was one of those not included, I would have concerns as well.”

He doesn’t think Stitt should veto the measure.

State Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, who authored the measure in the state House, did not immediately return a message left seeking comment.

Former legislator Bobby Cleveland, executive director of the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals, said the bill is probably one of the worst he’s ever seen. Cleveland’s group advocates for correctional employees.

“We should not be taking our money out of (the) DOC (Department of Corrections) budget when we can’t even give a raise to probation and parole officers who have a very dangerous job,” he said. “But we’re going to give private prisons a raise out of our budget? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. I think we’ve lost our ever-loving mind.”

Cleveland said public correctional employees will be very upset as news spreads. Morale will take a hit.

Public government should not be subsidizing private businesses that are under contract with the state, he said.

“That is just blatantly wrong,” Cleveland said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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