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.