The state Public Safety Department is seeking to increase the pay of Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers whose pay ranks 15th in the state.
Fourteen law enforcement agencies in the state, mostly police departments in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metropolitan areas, pay their beginning officers more than rookie troopers earn, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson said Thursday.
“You've got all these agencies that make so much more money than we do, but when the state of Oklahoma needs us, we're 911 for the state of Oklahoma,” Thompson told members of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on public safety and judiciary.
“When the people need help they call us and we go and stay as long as we need to be,” said Thompson, who pointed out troopers made 4,732 agency assistance calls during 2012.
Starting pay for troopers is $33,000 a year, he said. Some metro-area police departments pay their rookie officers $44,200 annually.
“It's making it more difficult for us to recruit those guys,” he said.
Thompson said he is asking for an increase of about $7 million for the pay raises for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The raises amount to about 90 percent of the salaries being paid to the top three law enforcement units in the state; it would bump up starting pay for troopers to $38,000 a year.
Of the seven states bordering Oklahoma, only New Mexico pays its troopers less, he said.
It's frustrating when troopers leave for higher-paying jobs offered by other law enforcement agencies, he said. Troopers get step pay increases until they hit seven years of service; after that, their pay stays the same unless they are promoted.
Thompson said the patrol loses about 30 troopers a year; 226 troopers are eligible to retire.
“That's a pretty good chunk of our workforce,” Thompson said.
Trooper numbers are down to a 22-year low of 770, he said. The patrol is authorized to have 925 troopers.
“We're asking these guys to do more and more every day,” Thompson said. “And our guys do it.”
Thompson said he was pleased the Legislature allocated $5 million last year so the patrol could hold an academy for cadets, the first one in about three years. No money was authorized during the state's economic downturn, but lawmakers last year also made the trooper academy an annual item in the patrol's budget.
Thompson also told committee members that long lines soon may be alleviated at the state's driver's licensing exam stations.
Software is being tested that would allow driver's license applicants to register by computer for a driver's license exam, he said. It's hoped the online service will be operational this year.
Eventually those taking the test will be able to fill out required paperwork online as well as take the written test online, he said.