By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
The Wyoming Highway Patrol has more than 50 vacancies for sworn officers, about a quarter of its available workforce. It’s a problem that’s demanding the attention of Wyoming lawmakers, who are considering a bill that attempts to at least stop the agency’s bleeding of personnel.
“We’re shorthanded, as are many law enforcement in the state and the country,” Lt. Josh Walther of the Wyoming Highway Patrol told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.
As a tool to address the issue, the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee drafted legislation that would give the WHP, Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigations and Wyoming Game and Fish Department an improved benefits package.
Up To Snuff
Senate File 18 would bring Highway Patrol troopers, as well as Game and Fish wardens and criminal investigators death benefits to a level equal to other law enforcement officers in the state.
The spouses of these employees who die while on the job now receive 50% of their salary, while the spouses of police officers and sheriff’s deputies receive at least 62.5% of their final salary monthly.
“If I get killed in the line of duty, it’s a bad day for all of us, right? But our spouses aren’t getting taken care as well in our plan as the other plan,” said Wyoming Department of Transportation Director Luke Reiner.
Reiner said SF 18 was inspired by requests from his employees.
Walther said although he doesn’t expect a wave of new trooper recruits because of the increased benefit, he said the measure will solidify the ranks he already has.
On Monday morning, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the benefit increase, advancing the bill to the Senate floor.
State Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said although he doesn’t look forward to dying, what he fears more is leaving his family in an insecure financial position after he dies.
The death benefit is paid as a lifetime annuity for the surviving spouse.
“This is part of our ongoing attempts to address personnel shortages,” said state Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas.
Boner said the discrepancy between the benefits of Wyoming’s various law enforcement agencies came about 20 years ago when the Legislature was attempting to put police departments and sheriff’s offices at the same 62.5% level.
People with more than 25 years of service might receive more than 62.5% under the legislation because their allotment is measured by years of service multiplied by 2.5.
Any children of the deceased younger than 18 receive a 6% benefit payout.
Wyoming Hasn’t Caught Up
Dave Swindell, executive director of the Wyoming Retirement System, said death benefits tend to be larger in the public safety fields, and what is offered in Wyoming is a bit lower than what is offered in other states.
“I think this puts us pretty much mainstream,” he said.
The cost of the benefit would increase liabilities by about $90,000 over 20 years, which would average out to about $8,400 per year cost on the state, as the money draws from the Warden and Patrol plan.
In the grand scheme of things, “$90,000 more in projected present value liabilities is not very material to the funding status,” Swindell said.
The plan includes a 29.4% employee contribution.
‘Music To Our Ears’
Reiner said employee pay has historically been the biggest hurdle for the Highway Patrol’s ability to retain employees. He said pay raises approved last year have helped.
“I am pleased to say that the situation seems to have stabilized, and we thank the governor and the legislature for their leadership in that space,” Reiner told Cowboy State Daily in an email.
Within his supplemental budget proposal, Gov. Mark Gordon also has proposed raising employee pay by $61 million. The last time Wyoming issued a pay increase was 2020.
State employees are now on average nearly 17% behind the 2022 marketplace for average wages, he said.
“It is music to our ears that there’s another raise being considered, because I do think it’s important to continue to make ourselves competitive,” said Reiner in a November Cowboy State Daily story.
Reiner said the employee shortages have not had an impact on the quality of law enforcement in the state.
“The men and women of the Wyoming Highway Patrol stepped up to meet the needs of the citizens of Wyoming,” Reiner said. “We have maintained our standards and expectations of the force and they meet the challenge every day.
“Wyoming Highway Patrol continues to be a high quality law enforcement agency and is one of the best in the nation.”