- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers could get their first pay raise in seven years under a plan given final legislative approval Tuesday, though it remains unclear whether money will be available in the overall state budget to fund the plan.

The House unanimously approved the measure without debate and sent it to Gov. Mary Fallin. The bill, which was previously approved by the Senate, includes all 101 House members as co-sponsors.

The measure provides a mechanism for an across-the-board pay raise for troopers and is designed to “bring them to more of a reasonable average to other law enforcement officers in the state,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol ranks 25th among state law enforcement agencies in starting salaries, and its training academy is not producing enough troopers to offset those who retire or take higher paying jobs with other law enforcement agencies or the private sector, said Trooper Keith Barenberg, president of the Oklahoma State Troopers Association.

“I appreciate all members of the Legislature for their support and look forward to the governor signing the bill,” Barenburg said in a statement. “Doing so will be a tremendous boost to troopers and the general public.”

However, funding for a similar bill never came through last year because of shortfalls in the state budget. The budget - and all the programs it funds - will be determined during negotiations between the House and Senate, which will have to be finalized by the end of May. The governor has not publicly committed to signing the bill, though Martin says she and the Legislature are committed to funding the pay raises this year.

The measure is based on the recommendations of a study conducted last year on state employee compensation. The analysis found that Oklahoma state trooper salaries were 14 percent below the average salary of troopers in other states. Officials said at the time that low state trooper pay was making it difficult for the agency to recruit and retain the best law enforcement candidates.

The bill removes the salary schedule for the Department of Public Safety, the parent agency of the patrol, from state statutes and provides that the salaries of troopers be set in accordance with the compensation study. The salaries of Capitol Patrol officers and DPS driver’s license examiners and communications personnel also are covered.

Lawmakers have said troopers would receive across-the-board pay hikes of between 14 percent and 20 percent under the measure. Lawmakers said the bill would cost the state about $8.5 million annually when fully implemented. A starting trooper currently makes about $38,000 and salaries have not been adjusted since 2007.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Thompson said the overwhelming support the bill received demonstrates the severity of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s needs.

“The department has simply reached the point where we must address the compensation of our troopers in order to attract, and most importantly, retain qualified law enforcement professionals to protect the public,” Thompson said.

Martin said the measure is the first to receive final passage in the 2014 Legislature that the House, Senate and governor have committed to fund. Legislation providing for a pay raise approved by lawmakers last year got hung up when a budget agreement between the House, Senate and governor’s office did not include funding for the raises.

Martin said he hopes that separate legislation to raise the salaries of other state workers will be approved before the Legislature adjourns next month.

“The troopers certainly deserve a raise, but there are lots of state employees who deserve a raise also,” Martin said.

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Online:

Senate Bill 232: http://bit.ly/1mYyfVr

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