HB 4063 provides only politically practical way to increase sheriff’s department salaries given local revenue limitations in Oklahoma (Capitol Update)

An important bill making its way through the legislature this session is House Bill 4063 by Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, Chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, and Sen. Darrell Weaver, R-Moore. HB 4063 establishes a grant program to provide state funding for county sheriff’s offices to bring salaries of the sheriffs, deputies, and jailers up to an annual salary of $75,000, $45,000, and $40,000 respectively. 

Once the minimum salaries have been reached, the sheriffs may use the grant funding to increase salaries, hire additional staff, or purchase vehicles, firearms, and safety equipment. According to Sen. Weaver, the maximum cost for the bill would be $28.1 million if sheriff’s offices in all 77 counties participated. The bill passed the House earlier by a vote of 85-5 and passed out of the Senate General Government Committee last week 9-1. It will now go to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration in the overall state budget. 

HB 4063 demonstrates how centrally funded Oklahoma state government is compared to some other states. This developed because local governments are historically underfunded due to limitations on how they are allowed to raise their own revenue. County government, of which sheriff’s offices are part, relies on property and sales taxes. 

Property taxes in Oklahoma are comparatively low, due to a combination of lower property values and lower tax rates. For example, a Texas homeowner in Texas pays $4,776.81 per year in property taxes on a house at the median value of $284,800, while an Oklahoma homeowner pays $1,821.13 on a house at the median value of $204,100. In 1984, the Oklahoma Legislature began allowing counties to assess up to a 2 percent sales tax, but the sales tax requires a vote of the people and must be designated for a particular purpose. 

To sustain sheriff’s office budgets without direct appropriations, the state has assessed fees for sheriff’s services and even requires prisoners in many counties to pay room and board when they are in jail. A low percentage of the fees and charges in criminal cases are collected, which adds a burden to both the counties and to the defendants in criminal cases, many of whom are indigent.

It is doubtful that a politically acceptable way to raise property or sales taxes for local governments is going to be found. About one-third of states allow municipalities, counties, school districts, and special districts to impose additional local income taxes, sometimes called earnings taxes or wage taxes, but it would be a huge political lift in Oklahoma to do something like that. So, it is likely that Oklahoma will continue collecting taxes at the state level and finding ways to share with local governments where there is a critical need. 

Until 1967, Oklahoma had county attorney offices that were fully funded by the counties. In 1967, they became district attorney offices and were partially funded by the state. Today district attorneys are state-funded. It appears history is about to repeat itself with a step toward partial funding of county sheriff’s offices. 

District attorneys, as well as the communities they serve, must rely on sheriff’s officers to investigate the crimes occurring in their jurisdiction. It is important the investigations are done competently so justice may be achieved. The only way to get and keep competent, honest, and high-caliber people is to pay them a reasonable salary to do a difficult job. HB 4063 is the only politically practical way to get that done and should be passed.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.