Funding tightens for trooper raises (Woodward News)

By Janelle Stecklein

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two years after troopers got hefty raises, the state can no longer afford them and is considering furloughs and other cuts to make ends meet in the Department of Public Safety.

The plight of troopers now concerned about whether their raises will stand up is feeding doubts about plans to give an even more expensive boost to the state’s 44,000 public school teachers.

Some local school leaders cringe at the thought of scrambling to pay for those increases.

“There is considerable concern that they would be on the hook to pay for teacher pay raises due to the uncertainty of our state budget,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

“We’ve had a number of years where we’ve continued to make cuts to meet our budget shortfalls. We sure don’t have any other places to cut,” he said.

Still, Gov. Mary Fallin has said she wants to call lawmakers back to session later this year to hand out $5,000 raises to each of the state’s teachers at a cost of $300 million.

Lawmakers ordering up $5,000 raises wouldn’t necessarily have to find money to fund them, said Hime, but instead could leave the burden to school districts.

Cash-strapped school leaders, in turn, could be faced with layoffs, program cuts and larger class sizes to cover the cost.

The dynamic is playing out on a smaller scale within the Department of Public Safety.

Lawmakers dialed up raises of about 21 percent for troopers three years ago at a cost of about $9.2 million.

Now the department is dipping into its operating funds to cover about half the cost of the raises.

Making matters worse, the agency’s $89 million budget was slashed 11.3 percent this year.

“In fairness, I believe they had every intention of fulfilling their obligations to doing this,” said Capt. Randy Rogers, the department’s legislative liaison.

“We’re to the point where we can’t make up the difference,” he said. “So we’re having to look at furloughs and other options — voluntary buyouts.”

Money is so tight, the department cancelled its trooper academy.

Trooper Keith Barenberg, president of the State Troopers Association, said its 800 members are increasingly concerned that their raises — just two years old — may be in jeopardy.

“I understand the shortfall the state had,” he said. “They were out of money, too. I feel for our administration trying to keep things running normal when they don’t have enough money.”

Still, he said, it would be nice if lawmakers can find a way to fund the commitments they’ve made. A starting trooper makes about $43,600 a year, up from $38,000 before the raises.

Barenberg said the state needs to be sure it can pay for teacher raises, too.

“If they can’t fully fund it next year, then why do it?” he said.

Educators hope their raises will be funded through a different source, said David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Rather than backing Fallin’s plan, many teachers are looking to a question on November’s ballot that proposes raising the state sales tax by a penny to fund the $5,000 raises.

“They would rather move ahead with the initiative petition and trust that the voters will give them a permanently funded, dedicated-revenue pay increase, rather than taking this last-ditch effort,” he said.

Fallin has not said how she will pay for the teacher raises. The Legislature grappled with a $1.3 billion shortfall before adjourning in May, and most agencies saw budgets gutted.

Fallin’s spokesman, Michael McNutt, said she is still working on a plan but wants to assure school districts that funding will be “permanent with absolute certainty going forward.”

McNutt said Fallin’s office is also looking into the trooper raises and how they’re funded.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said the Department of Public Safety may need to reconsider how it spends its money.

When lawmakers agreed to give troopers raises, he said, they were handled in the manner and at the level that the department requested.

“If they’re needing to rethink that, or if they can no longer afford that, then that’s a discussion they’re going to have to bring to the members who will be here next year,” he said. “And if they can’t afford the salaries that they requested, then legislators will have to revisit that issue.”

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