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Prison jobs spared in state budget

SALEM, Ore. — A key Oregon legislative panel voted Wednesday to spare the jobs of 19 corrections officers and other prison officials that had been on the chopping block.

The Emergency Board scaled back spending cuts affecting the Department of Corrections amid concerns that a plan to cut supervisors would create a dangerous environment.

"The safety of the staff, safety of the inmates, safety of the public is always our No. 1 concern," said Republican Sen. Jackie Winters of Salem.

The agency will still have to lay off 21 managers, but most will likely be administrators. Most of the workers who supervise nurses and corrections officers will be able to keep their jobs.

Board members did not spare jobs at other hard-hit agencies, however, including the state police and the Department of Human Services. Altogether, the board's action is expected to eliminate about 170 jobs. The exact number of layoffs is unclear because some positions are vacant and some affected workers will be able to take new jobs that are being retained.

The job cuts were imposed because of a mandate from the Legislature to cut $28 million this year, with a goal of continuing the savings in future budget cycles.

Lawmakers directed state agencies to trim middle management, aiming for 11 employees for every supervisor in large agencies. Employees whose primary job is dealing with reporters or the Legislature also were targeted, along with spending on contract services and advertising.

The 20-member Emergency Board makes budget decisions when the full Legislature isn't in session. It's run by the Senate president and the House co-speakers, with 10 members each from the House and Senate.

Budget cuts have affected every state agency since the beginning of the economic downturn, but the Corrections Department has been particularly challenged. The agency, which accounts for about 11 percent of state tax and lottery dollars, has struggled to balance a growing prison population and rising health care costs with lower revenue and directions from the Legislature not to close prisons or lay off front-line workers.

The Emergency Board agreed to use $1 million from a reserve fund to reduce the impact of the latest cuts, and the board will probably have to find more down the road. The prisons cuts approved Wednesday would have been far more severe, with as many as 80 supervisors lost, if not for the reserve funding and unanticipated savings generated from refinancing debt.

Under the agreement that spared some of the prison jobs, the Corrections Department will have to identify more management jobs for cuts next year.

By then, officials hope to have implemented a more comprehensive plan to redesign the prison system so they'll be easier to manage, said Colette Peters, the agency's director. Gov. John Kitzhaber has created a task force to look at sentencing reforms that might lower the costs of incarceration.

Oregon State Police will cut four sergeants, one lieutenant and six other managers. All but one of the positions are filled. It's not clear how the cuts would affect State Police patrols or investigations.

The Department of Human Services will lose 63 positions, but Director Erinn Kelley-Siel told employees in an email last week that no layoffs are necessary. Some of the cuts are the result of the closure of state-operated group homes.

In addition to the budget plan, the Emergency Board also approved:

— Nearly $600,000 to pay for a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. David Wu, who resigned.

— $550,000 for public safety costs at the Olympic trials in Eugene.

— More than $1 million for courts.

— About $8 million to help implement a foreclosure plan approved earlier this year.