OKLAHOMA lawmakers have $188 million less to allocate this is year, yet state agencies have combined to ask for about $800 million more than they got a year ago. Clearly, difficult decisions are ahead. Most agency directors will be disappointed.
Our hope is that Michael Thompson, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, isn’t one of them.
Thompson oversees the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, whose trooper force is well below what’s needed. The number has the potential to diminish further every year — 210 of the 768 troopers now on the roster are eligible to retire immediately; half of those 210 have more than 25 years with the OHP.
Ideally, 950 troopers would handle the agency’s various responsibilities, which include not just keeping roads safe but lakes as well. OHP has never had that many troopers and likely never will, but the patrol can’t afford to see its numbers recede.
So Thompson is seeking additional funding to provide pay raises to his troops, and he has allies in Gov. Mary Fallin and the Legislature. Fallin’s proposed budget for next fiscal year seeks a 4.5 percent funding increase to DPS for trooper pay. That would equal $9.8 million for a full year (the new fiscal year begins July 1).
House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, has said pay raises for targeted state employees, including Highway Patrol troopers, is a priority for his caucus. And early in the session, the Senate approved a bill to provide troopers with across-the-board raises of 14 percent to 20 percent. All of this is encouraging.
Like many state employees, troopers have gone several years without pay raises. This places the OHP at a distinct competitive disadvantage — 25 other law enforcement entities across the state pay better than the OHP, whose troopers start out at about $33,100 annually. So the idea of someone beginning his or her career at a police department and aspiring to one day join the OHP is often a thing of the past.
“The organization’s really at a crossroads to be able to compete,” Thompson said in a recent meeting with The Oklahoman’s editorial board. “We’re trying to keep those (troopers) who are thinking about leaving, and wanting to be able to recruit new ones.”
To help with the latter concern, the OHP wants to amend its rules to allow applicants to sign up at age 21, instead of 23. Also proposed is to allow potential troopers to have an associate’s degree instead of a bachelor’s. Military service would count toward the hours needed for degree completion.
These are sensible ideas that have so far been well-received by lawmakers. Final approval of the bill making the changes would broaden the OHP’s pool of applicants, which has declined through the years. A large pool is necessary in order to produce a quality crop of new troopers each year.
Thompson and the OHP’s new chief, Ricky Adams, outlined a number of initiatives underway within the agency. These include a continued commitment to core values, reviewing operations to ensure troopers are best trained and best equipped to handle the job, and developing a plan to upgrade the OHP’s communications technology, which in some cases is outdated.
“We have started to take a more strategic look at a lot of the issues we’ve had across the agency,” Adams said. “It’s helping us to kind of identify our operational gaps, where we’ve got issues that we need to address across our entire agency.”
One major issue is better pay, and that falls to lawmakers. They need to find a way to help this year.