By John Celock
Following an apparent defeat of a proposal to raise state trooper salaries, a Kansas state legislator has proposed exploring a merger of two state law enforcement agencies.
State House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Chairman J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report that he wants to start the process of studying a merger between the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in an effort to address the growing trooper shortage in the state. Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) latest budget amendments do not include a proposal crafted by state House members to provide for a raise for Kansas Highway Patrol members, along with a new pension program.
“I think to solve the problem that we are running into with recruitment and retention with KHP we have to take a more aggressive approach,” Claeys told The Celock Report. “I think that approach includes a study of merging KHP and KBI into a single state police force.”
The House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee in February approved a plan in the state budget that would use roughly $3 million in funds from the asset forfeiture fund and other funds to pay for the five to ten percent raise. The plan was also approved by the House Appropriations Committee in February. The plan was developed as part of an effort to address KHP being down by 100 troopers statewide with another 50 eligible for retirement. KHP officials have been working on developing a pay plan to address the recruitment and retention issue.
Currently Kansas state troopers make a $20.53 an hour starting salary, which rises up to $23.78 after five years and remains the same for the trooper’s career. KHP has said that the agency has lost troopers to other states and to local police departments for higher salaries. In addition, lawmakers had considered legislation to establish a new pension program for veteran troopers to keep them on the job for up to five years longer in an effort to address the shortage.
The pay raise plan was not included in the state Senate budget proposal or in Brownback’s latest budget amendments. Lawmakers are grappling with a multimillion-dollar budget gap in the state.
Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley told The Celock Report that the governor’s office did reach out to KHP to see if the agency wanted anything included in the budget amendments and KHP said they did not.
Claeys said that he sees a merger as providing a new career path for troopers within the KHP. KHP handles traffic enforcement in Kansas, patrolling interstates and other state highways, along with accident investigations, motor carrier safety and running the Capitol Police. KBI handles criminal investigations, the state crime lab and drug enforcement.
“The issue that we are running into is that we want people to see a career path. In your local police force you have a career path of off to detective and into management,” Claeys said. “Here you don’t have that ability to step all the way through the system. Instead if you leave Highway Patrol and go to KBI you start from scratch.”
Claeys indicated that his proposal is just his at the moment, but that he would like to talk to others.
“This is not in a study phase at this point,” he said. “I am simply reacting to this program not moving through and the need to solve this problem. This is me thinking of alternative solutions to this problem.”
The proposal to merge KHP and KBI comes with a series of political implications that could upend a policing structure that has existed in the state for over seven decades. KHP is an agency under the control of the governor, while KBI is under the control of the state attorney general, where it has existed since its creation in 1939. State Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R) told The Celock Report in an emailed statement that he opposes a move that could take KBI out from his jurisdiction.
“Removing the KBI from the jurisdiction of the attorney general would be contrary to the interests of public safety and would be a mistake,” Schmidt said.
Claeys has not indicated if he would want to see a combined agency under the control of the governor or attorney general. States with state police forces traditionally place them under the governor’s control.
State Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Greg Smith (R-Overland Park) told The Celock Report that he did not have an immediate comment on Claeys’ proposal, saying it was the first he had heard of it. He said he would want to discuss the matter further before offering a specific comment but noted in general the two agencies have different focuses.
“I will say though that both are public safety agencies but each has a different focus and mission,” Smith said.
Brownback’s office did not comment on the proposal to merge KHP and KBI.
Capt. Josh Kellerman, KHP’s spokesman, said the agency would leave discussions over any merger or budgets to the Legislature and governor. He did indicate that the law enforcement agencies should be part of the conversation.
“Obviously those decisions would be made at that level,” Kellerman said. “We hope that input from the KHP and KBI would be part of those discussions.”
The proposal to merge KHP and KBI into a single state police is a model used in other states. Among the states with a single state police are New York, Missouri, Nebraska, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The Highway Patrol was formed in 1937 to handle motor vehicle enforcement. KHP was preceded by a force of motor vehicle inspectors, which was created in 1933 by then Gov. Alfred Landon (R) to address crime in the state.
According to a history posted on the KBI website, the Bureau was created in 1939 after the Kansas Bankers Association and the Kansas Livestock Association and other groups asked then state Attorney General Jay Parker (R) and then Gov. Payne Ratner (R) for an agency to address crime and criminal investigation around the state. The KBI history says that a single state police had been previously considered but said that potential political conflicts around KHP and its predecessor agency in the 1930s blocked the single agency proposal at that time.
While KBI is part of Schmidt’s office, state House members have placed KBI’s budget under the Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee, along with KHP, National Guard and Department of Corrections, while the rest of the attorney general’s budget is under the General Government Budget Committee, which oversees spending plans for agencies headed by elected constitutional officers.
Claeys indicated that he plans on studying the matter more in-depth this year in an effort to develop a proposal. He did not say if he is planning for the Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee to explore the issue during the 2016 legislative session, saying he wants to see where his research takes him first.
“I’d like to do some off session study with interested parties and see what it would look like if we were to do a plan,” he said.