More state troopers sought in Montana

| 3/29/2005

The Montana Highway Patrol would get more money to put additional officers on the road and pay higher salaries to keep them from defecting to other agencies under a bill given tentative approval by House lawmakers March 24.

The number of uniformed patrol officers in the state has declined by 6 percent in the past 30 years to just over 200 while Montana’s population grew 32 percent, The Associated Press reported.

Low pay and long hours were cited as the main reasons many officers left the force.

The bill alters the source for patrol salaries from the state’s fuel tax to a new vehicle tag fee. Supporters of the bill – which is awaiting final approval before the House – want that money earmarked for roads.

Sponsored by Rep. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, the bill would generate an estimated $6.5 million each year by adding a $5 fee to motor vehicle registrations. About $3.4 million of that would be used in fiscal year 2007 to increase patrol salaries and to hire 20 more officers to increase the patrol’s presence on Montana highways, with the rest going for as many as 50 new officers in coming years.

It would open up as many as 14 positions within the patrol by removing a state mandate requiring the agency to leave jobs unfilled to stay within its budget.

The raises would be based on the average starting pay for deputy sheriffs in the eight counties where the bulk of the officers are stationed. The bill also makes patrol salaries part of the governor’s budget, meaning they wouldn’t have to be renewed every year like other state employees.

If given final approval in the House, HB35 would head to the Senate for further consideration.

Montana isn’t the only state to pursue adding law enforcement officers to patrol its roads.

In Wyoming, Gov. Dave Freudenthal signed off on a supplemental budget measure authorizing $600,000 to hire five new state troopers this year. Five more will be added in 2006.

An effort to add officers for Mississippi roads, however, didn’t turn out as well for proponents.

The Mississippi House Appropriations Committee failed to forward a Senate bill to increase the number of state troopers in the state prior to a deadline for bills originating in the Senate to move to the House floor for consideration.

The bill – SB429 – sought to appropriate $3 million to equip and train at least 50 new troopers.

The Mississippi Highway Patrol has 533 troopers, but 149 are eligible for retirement in the coming year.