, Muskogee, OK

May 5, 2013

State GOP's budget snubs police, prisons

Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Despite 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.

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 low pay, seven years without raises and better wages in other businesses.

The DOC also said earlier this year that 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 is now 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. 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.