The heads of Oklahoma’s public safety agencies told members of a House budget subcommittee that deep budget cuts during the national economic downturn that trimmed millions of dollars from their budgets had affected their ability to do their jobs.
“We need more troopers. We just flat need more troopers,” Commissioner of Public Safety Mike Thompson said. Thompson said there are currently 759 state troopers on Oklahoma’s highways, the fewest in 22 years. Of those, 210 are currently eligible for retirement, he said.
“We’re literally just putting these guys at risk,” Thompson said. “We need the manpower. We’re approaching the point now that we’re really irrelevant.”
Department of Corrections Director Justin Jones said almost $78.6 million has been cut from his agency’s budget since 2010 and that he needs $31 million of that restored for new electronic locks at four prisons and a variety of other infrastructure improvements.
“These have to be done,” Jones said. “When we lock the doors, there are ways to get out.
“These are life-safety issues,” Jones said.
Lawmakers said adequately funding public safety agencies is a priority for the Legislature, even in a year when the state budget is expected to be flat.
“It’s a core government function. We’re not talking fluff,” said Rep. Lisa Billy, R-Lindsay, the committee’s chairwoman. Billy said she is concerned that more cuts in the agencies’ budgets could jeopardize public safety.
“We just kept cutting and cutting and cutting,” said Rep. Paul Road, D-Tishomingo, a retired state trooper. “There’s no meat left on the bone.”
Lawmakers heard the pleas of the state’s public safety directors one day after Gov. Mary Fallin delivered her State of the State address and unveiled her plan to reduce and eventually eliminate the state’s personal income tax.
“We can’t worry about cutting taxes until we get people whole again,” Roan said.
Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, said lawmakers will have to balance the need to adequately fund a core function of state government with Fallin’s goal of reducing Oklahoma’s 5.25 percent personal income tax rate to 3.5 percent beginning in January by eliminating dozens of tax exemptions.
“There is no doubt the need that our state is in,” Ritze said.
Thompson said the Highway Patrol’s strength is the lowest it’s been since he’s been with the force and that there are fewer state troopers than there are officers in the Oklahoma City Police Department. He said troopers have statewide jurisdiction and are responsible for patrolling 98,000 miles of roads and highways, including all of the state’s interstate highways, and 4,000 miles of shoreline.
“We’re a totally reactive force,” he said.
The agency’s $202 million budget includes about $84.9 million in appropriated state dollars, which Thompson said is less than the agency’s payroll. Fallin has proposed providing $6 million in supplemental funding to the agency this year to pay for a trooper academy for 35 cadets in March, the first since 2009.
Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Director Stan Florence said budget cuts had forced his agency to freeze filling 35 vacancies at the agency and that further cuts would lead to furloughs.
Budget cuts have forced the agency to reduce investigations of the theft of equipment from oil and gas fields and curtail other investigative work, Florence said.
“You’ve been cut to the point that there’s nothing left to cut,” Roan said.
“Yes, sir,” Florence replied. “We are not doing criminal intelligence like I want. It’s had an impact on us.”
The state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Eric Pfeifer, said his agency’s six pathologists handle 18,000 cases a year and that the agency needs seven additional doctors, a new headquarters in Oklahoma City and new equipment in order to regain the national accreditation it lost in 2009. He said his goal is for the office to be accredited again by 2015 or 2016.
“We need personnel,” Pfeifer said. “We need 13 pathologists right now. The bottom line is we need some more help.”
He said hiring the additional physicians and funding the other requests would increase the agency’s budget by about $4 million a year.