By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Highway Patrol academy, which years ago saw thousands of job prospects for a few dozen openings, is extending its application period this year as patrol officials say the agency is struggling to compete with local police departments that pay their officers higher salaries.
Troopers, who haven't seen a pay raise since 2007, were optimistic during the last legislative session after a bill to boost their salaries sailed through the House and Senate without a dissenting vote. But the measure got hung up late in the session when a budget agreement reached between the House, Senate and governor's office didn't include the $7.3 million needed to pay for the raises.
"It got everybody's hopes up, and then it went nowhere," said Keith Barenberg, a patrolman from northeast Oklahoma and president of the Troopers' Association. "I don't know what happened, other than we just didn't get it this year."
After fewer than 400 people applied for 55 spots in the next OHP academy, officials extended the application period until June 30. As of Tuesday, 483 recruits had applied, but that number continues to decline from previous academies, Barenberg said.
"It's getting hard to get guys to apply, and I think the majority of the reason is because of the pay," he said. "A lot of the recruits are from right there around in Oklahoma City. Well, they've got several different departments they can go to, make more money and not have to move around the state."
In 2012, there were 636 applicants for 40 positions, while there were 557 applicants for the OHP's current 20-week academy.
Although there was support among rank-and-file legislators for a pay hike for troopers, Gov. Mary Fallin consistently said throughout the session that she first wanted to see a broad study on employee compensation before supporting any pay raises for state employees. That study currently is being conducted by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services and should be completed before the end of the year.
"Troopers are responsible for protecting the governor, and also for keeping a lot of Oklahomans safe, so it makes perfect sense that we're talking about their salaries, but there are also social workers whose job it is to protect children and their welfare, and corrections employees who have needs and teachers who have needs," said Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz. "There are a lot of very hardworking, worthy state employees who need to be a part of this conversation, and one of the advantages of this study is that it forces all of us, and certainly policymakers, to consider all of these groups of state workers, and not simply to single one group out at the expense of all the rest."
A cadet in the Oklahoma Highway Patrol earns $33,192, and his or her salary increases annually to about $57,000 after eight years, according to state law. Currently, 16 local Oklahoma police departments pay their officers more, making it more difficult to recruit and retain the best candidates, said Lt. Randy Rogers.
For example, a starting police officer in Norman earns $43,250 up to $64,000 after eight years.
"You look at a new guy wanting to start a law enforcement career, if they go with a local police department, they won't have to move and they know they'll more their entire career than they can with the Highway Patrol," Rogers said.
By comparison, a starting Oklahoma teacher with a bachelor's degree earns $31,800. After eight years, an Oklahoma teacher with a bachelor's degree will earn $34,700.