More, better paid troopers to patrol Montana highways

| 5/11/2005

By mid-July, drivers on Montana roads might notice a few more Highway Patrol cruisers as a result of a bill signed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The new law gives the patrol more money to put additional officers out on the road and pay higher salaries to keep them from defecting to other agencies.

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.

Sponsored by Rep. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, the new law – previously HB35 – alters the source for patrol salaries from the state’s fuel tax to a new vehicle tag fee. Supporters of the effort want fuel tax money earmarked for roads.

The new law is expected to 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 opens up as many as 19 positions within the patrol this year by removing a state mandate requiring the agency to leave jobs unfilled to stay within its budget, The AP reported.

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