A senate review by Senator Al McAffrey

Oklahoma State Senator Al McAffrey. Photo by Robin Dorner.

Session is winding down with less than three weeks remaining. A budget agreement was reached this week and was approved in House committee Wednesday and by the full House Thursday. The Senate will take up House Bill 2301 this coming week.

More than likely, the measure will pass the Senate and be on the Governor’s desk by the end of the week. Not because everyone agrees with the measure but simply because there aren’t enough of us whose votes could make a difference.

HB 2301 is a $7.1 billion budget that calls for increases to common and higher education, the Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. These agencies provide vital state services so I was pleased to see that that they received increases. The budget represents a 3.9 percent increase in appropriations, which is around $267 million more than this year’s budget.

Unfortunately, the bill doesn’t include pay raises for our 34,000 hardworking state employees, including correctional officers and Highway Patrolmen, who haven’t had an across-the-board raise in seven years. While some agencies have provided some small pay increases, the average state employee salary is still well below regional averages as well as averages in the private sector.

I was especially disappointed that the budget didn’t include raises for our state’s correctional officers or state troopers. These are individuals who put their lives on the line every day to ensure our safety. Currently, only 62 percent of DOC’s 5,800 authorized correctional officer positions are filled because the private sector offers higher wages, better hours and safer environments.The starting salary for correctional officers is $11.83 per hour, which is significantly lower than in surrounding states and much lower than starting salaries in the oil field.

 Not only are legislative leaders snubbing Oklahoma’s correctional officers by not providing them with a liveable wage, but they’re also putting their lives in danger by not providing more funds for the agency to address understaffing at the state’s prisons. Because DOC is so understaffed, some shifts at our state prisons leave one officer overseeing up to 200 inmates or more. This is unacceptable! Not only does it put these officers in danger, but the public, if the inmates were ever to start a riot. They could easily overpower the few guards and escape the facilities. It’s a scary situation.

 The story is the same for our state troopers. We have the lowest number of highway patrolmen that we’ve had in 22 years. Again, while there is interest in the highway patrol, most people can find safer, higher paying jobs elsewhere. Five of our six bordering states pay their troopers more and our state offers the 16thlowest state trooper pay in the country. It’s embarrassing and I’m ashamed that these brave men and women are willing to put their lives in danger every day and that my conservative colleagues in the legislature aren’t willing to increase their pay.

 A bill was introduced this year that would have increased the starting pay of correctional officers from $11.83 per hour to $14 per hour, while other employees would have gotten a 5 percent pay increase. Together these pay increases would have only cost $12.2 million. Another bill would have given state troopers a 16 percent pay raise. Unfortunately, both of these bills are now in conference and will probably stay there.

Hopefully, these pay issues will be addressed next session as the budget does include $200,000 for a study to try to figure out a performance-based compensation system for all of our state employees.

If you have any questions or comments, I can be reached by email atmcaffrey@oksenate.govor by phone at (405) 521-5610. You can also write me: Senator Al McAffrey, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 527A, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105.