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Grant program to increase sheriff pay debated during latest Oklahoma budget talks

Ottawa County Sheriff's Department
Republican House leaders want to spend $20 million to increase certain Oklahoma sheriff, deputy, and jailer salaries. The Senate is pushing back, warning them against tying up the state in a commitment to fund a county-level responsibility.

Update: By 9 a.m. Friday morning, Oklahoma lawmakers came to an agreement on the salary increases, as long as they weren’t mandated by the state and offered as options for qualifying law enforcement agencies.

They agreed to allocate $20 million for salary increases for small county and city law enforcement departments.

A new grant program to increase Sheriff salaries is pending agreement between Oklahoma state Senate and House fiscal leaders. House members make the case that deputies are struggling because of a state statute tying their pay to that of their sheriffs.

House members say some county sheriff’s deputies are struggling, having to take extra jobs to make ends meet. The blame falls on the county law enforcement officer pay structure and salary caps under Oklahoma law, they say.

House Bill 4063, by Kevin Wallace in the House and Darrell Weaver in the Senate, appropriates $20 million dollars to increase those salary caps for certain county sheriffs, deputies, and jailers.

Qualifying sheriffs would see their baseline pay increase to $75,000; deputies would see no less than $45,000 and jailers $40,000.

Senators say a fund to support local police agencies already exists and that county-level law enforcement salaries are just that: a county-level budgeting issue. 

Wallace, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, made the case during the fifth round of public budget talks for the money going into a revolving fund to support the increases long-term. He said the measure works to close a pay disparity between municipal police officers in small towns and their county-level colleagues.

“There's really a disparity of pay from the county or municipal level at certain population thresholds,” Wallace said. “Even where these officers are on food stamps and taking jobs back at state agencies just to make more money.”

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat warned Wallace and other House members against tying the state up in a commitment to pay salaries countries governments are responsible for. It’s happened before, he said.

“When I first came to the legislature, I asked fiscal staff why in the world were we picking up pensions for municipal police and fire? Why did that become a state liability?” Treat said. “I'm not suggesting we go away from that commitment. But a future legislature may very well look at us and say, ‘why in the world did you pick up salaries for people that you have no control over their salary and they are not employees of the state?’”

He proposed putting the money in the existing Justice Reinvestment Grant Program through the Attorney General’s office for new equipment instead, so qualifying county governments can free up money for officer salaries.

"Rather than picking up salaries for people that the state does not employ,” Treat said. “We would like to consider using that existing grant program and put some money in there for the purchase of equipment, not for picking up the burden on salaries.”

He said there would likely need to be revisions to that program to ensure the agencies targeted are the ones that get the money and expressed a willingness to work that out with House members.

Wallace was adamant: the issue is about officers putting food on their dinner tables, not driving shinier patrol cars or having newer gear and House speaker-elect Kyle Hilbert backed him up.

Hilbert said state law prohibits deputies from making more money than their sheriffs — and the sheriff’s salary caps are low.

“By buying their equipment, vehicles, their fuel, whatever we want to call it, we're not solving the issue of being able to raise the compensation of the sheriff's and also raise the compensation of the deputies for them to be able to hire and retain good law enforcement,” Hilbert said.

Treat agreed to disagree with his House colleagues and they all moved on to other budget items.

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Lionel Ramos covers state government at KOSU. He joined the station in January 2024.
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