The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

May 5, 2013

Lawmakers concerned about amount of money allocated for public safety groups

Staff and wire reports
Enid News & Eagle

— Despite repeated, bipartisan calls throughout this year’s legislative session for more money for public safety agencies, the budget proposal unveiled recently by Gov. Mary Fallin and a handful of top Republican officials would give only a fraction of the state’s new funding to police and prisons.

Out of almost $270 million in additional funding proposed for state agencies this coming fiscal year, public safety departments would see about $10.7 million, with none of it destined to provide what many officials say are desperately needed raises for corrections officers and highway troopers or to take pressure off a strained prison system.

“I think that is at a dire point that we need to do something with,” said Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, who wasn’t a member of the budget team. “It’s fair to say I don’t think corrections will be able to go through another budget year of the same amount as right now.”

Under the proposed $7 billion budget, the state Department of Corrections would receive the same appropriation as this year, and the Department of Public Safety — which covers the Oklahoma State Highway Patrol, driver’s licenses and the AMBER Alert — would receive $522,000 in additional money, a tiny fraction of its current budget.

State Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, said he had little to do with the budget, but recalls Fallin saying in her State of the State address she wanted to put more OHP troopers on the road. Enns wants to remedy that, and said one of the first priorities of the Legislature should be to protect the people of the state.

“I’m getting calls from troopers right and left saying they are woefully understaffed. One told me he had just interviewed three candidates, and all three asked why they should be OHP troopers when they could go to Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Edmond or Lawton  and be paid more to be city police,” Enns said.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said there is interest in the House for increasing funding to Department of Corrections employees and to Department of Public Safety employees, and something still could be done. A delay resulted when the Department of Corrections discovered additional funds they had not reported. They withdrew a funding request made to the Legislature, something he has never seen done, he said.

“There’s still work to be done. We could direct the DOC to spend some if their funds, at least part of them, are unencumbered,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he has a number of friends who are OHP troopers and many constituents who are concerned with the safety of the state’s roads. He thinks there will be more money to OHP troopers and for the trooper school.

“That still could happen,” he said.

The state employs 770 troopers out of an ideal 925, leading to dangerously spread out patrols and long response times, the Oklahoma State Troopers Association said in a statement after the budget was unveiled Thursday. OHP Maj. Rusty Rhoades blamed the shortfall on low pay, seven years without raises and better wages in other businesses.

The DOC also said earlier this year it needed $67 million more than this year’s budget or it will have nowhere to put new prisoners. The state system is near capacity with more than 26,000 inmates and a diminished officer force.

“We’ll do the best we can. We’ll make it work,” said DOC spokesman Jerry Massie. Asked whether the department’s needs were still urgent, he responded bluntly: “Apparently not.”

A bill to provide pay raises to troopers and other safety personnel passed the House and Senate without opposition and now is headed to a conference committee between the chambers. It would cost about $23 million to implement — a hole the proposed budget doesn’t fill.

“We’re continuing to fight for that,” said Rep. Lisa Billy, R-Lindsay, one of the bill’s 17 co-sponsors from both parties.

Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the governor would “certainly” consider the pay raise bill if it reaches her. He noted the budget deal gives millions of additional dollars to drug abuse programs.

The lack of additional DOC funding, however, was deliberate, Weintz said. The governor has recently questioned whether the department has clearly reported several revolving funds to her office.

“We want to evaluate the way they are keeping their books, reporting their funds, and have a good idea of what their needs are and what dollars they have to address those needs,” Weintz said. “Until all those questions are answered, the people in charge of making the budget ... are not comfortable with appropriating additional dollars to that agency.”

Blackwell, who was a member of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee last year, said he had no similar qualms about the DOC revolving funds. He called the lack of public safety funding “a clarion call” for a budget process that included more than a handful of officials.

“I think we may be able to come to a solution outside of the budget to deal with those raises for troopers and raises for correctional officers,” he said, adding several legislators would get together this coming week to look into the possibility.

AP writer Dan Holtmeyer and Staff Writer Robert Barron contributed to this story.