Gov. Rick Scott loves to compare Florida to Texas, especially when economic reports show the Sunshine State running ahead of the Lone Star State. But there's one area where "Don't mess with Texas'' reigns supreme: pay for state troopers. While the Florida Legislature's decision to provide a 5 percent pay increase for law enforcement in the proposed 2017-18 state budget is a good step forward, state troopers are woefully underpaid compared to their counterparts in Texas and elsewhere. This is a safety issue for Floridians as well as a fairness issue for troopers, whose starting pay of less than $34,000 a year is not nearly enough for putting their lives on the line and helping keep everyone else safe.
The Times' Jeremy Wallace reported that since 2010 the Florida Highway Patrol has lost nearly 1,000 troopers to retirement or resignation, almost half the size of the current workforce. The Florida Highway Patrol director, Col. Gene Spaulding, told the Times the agency had 240 vacancies this spring and a current state trooper class less than half the usual size. The effect of the smaller patrol is clear. The number of speeding tickets decreased by 22 percent from 2011 to 2016 even though Florida now has a million more licensed drivers. The number of traffic citations also fell by 27 percent. Maybe people just drove safer? During that same time period, the number of crashes jumped from 229,000 to 395,000. Fewer troopers create more dangerous roads.
It doesn't take a full-blown investigation to uncover a big reason why this is happening: money. At $33,977, the starting pay for a state trooper in Florida falls well below other southern states, including Texas ($73,000), Louisiana ($47,000), Alabama ($39,000) and Mississippi ($38,000). Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, made it a top priority to finally get raises for law enforcement officers and other state employees. But even with the 5 percent increase for law enforcement in the state's proposed $82.4 billion budget, starting pay still would lag behind these states at about $36,000. The nation's third-largest state can do better.
Mark Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, recommended in January that the state boost starting salaries up $10,000. That may be the right approach, and the Legislature should continue to provide significant annual pay increases for state troopers who are paid so little to do so much. That would help reduce turnover rates, fill vacancies and get Florida's state troopers the pay they deserve.