'Just ludicrous': Brown County's top cop calls out lawmaker for stalling bill

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) "It's one individual that's being an obstructionist that's not allowing this hearing to let the other voices of the state heard, and I just found that to be just ludicrous," says Brown County Sheriff John Gossage.

These are the strong words from Brown County's top cop, angry there's no movement on a bill he says is needed to protect county corrections officers.

The bill would give what's called protective status to corrections officers in county jails.

In general, it allows them to retire earlier and provides more coverage and support if they get injured on the job.

It passed unanimously in the state Assembly, but has stalled in the Senate.

"Now it's stuck. The dysfunction in Madison is troubling to me," says Gossage.

Frustration is mounting for Brown County's sheriff, upset Assembly bill 676 is stalled in a Senate committee , not scheduled for a vote or public hearing.

"There's a retention factor that we have with our corrections officers. We have people leaving. I had one leave the other day that is now going to a job in construction," says Gossage.

He blames a mass exodus of county corrections officers, including 24 just last year, plus fewer people entering the field, to not having protective status.

We've reported extensively on attacks against corrections officers in state prisons, who have the protection, but the sheriff argues it's just as dangerous in jails, where injuries are also frequent, and they deal with many of the same inmates as prisons.

Gossage says current and future employees worry about their safety.

"I don't need a 60-year old corrections officer fighting with an 18-year old adult male. I really don't, because there's really nothing but bad that's going to happen from that. There's going to be a lot of injuries," says Gossage. "They would be covered under like a workman's comp but a duty disability, if it was a severe injury that they have to take some type of leave, they would not be covered under that, under the state."

Gossage says AB676 would allow that, giving counties the option to offer protective status, paid for by employees, not taxpayers, through the Wisconsin Retirement System.

And that's the sticking point for Senator Duey Stroebel.

As the chair of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Technology and Consumer Protection, where this bill is now sitting, he controls its fate.

Stroebel's office tells us the senator will not schedule a public hearing because he wants a larger discussion on benefits. In a statement released to Target 2 Investigates late Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson says "AB676, while well-meaning, puts taxpayers on the hook for future tax increases. pension benefits, once offered and earned, are constitutionally guaranteed regardless of changing circumstances." Scroll down to read the full statement.

Gossage argues one person shouldn't hold the power to kill a bill.

The Badger State Sheriff's Association is now pushing other senators to intervene, but time is ticking with the Senate's session ending soon.

"We sent some letters to our local senators, trying to get a push to at least get a public hearing. That's all we're asking. Allow the people to be heard," adds Gossage.

Statement from Senator Duey Stroebel's office:

"I have great respect for the work our county jailors do and appreciate their service to keep us safe. AB 676, while well-meaning, puts taxpayers on the hook for future tax increases. Pension benefits, once offered and earned, are constitutionally guaranteed regardless of changing circumstances. Moving employees to the protective service classification means higher long term costs for all employees and taxpayers.

The fully funded rating of our pension system has increasingly relied on higher contribution rates from both employees and taxpayers. The contribution rate of gross payroll for protective service employees has gone up from a low of 10.7% in 2001 to 17.4% this year. Higher pension can reduce take home pay. I do not believe it is responsible to promise any increase in pension benefits, no matter how worthy the employees, until we have a broader discussion to address pension costs and employee retention needs."