JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said improved public safety is his top priority, but he’ll try to accomplish that goal without any additional state troopers, a budget official told lawmakers Thursday.
In a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, Dan Spencer, administrative services director for the Department of Public Safety, told lawmakers that the department will seek to fill existing vacancies in the ranks of the Alaska State Troopers rather than try to add new positions.
This comes amid recommendations that the number of positions be increased. A 2018 report by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center found that in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough alone, demand on the Alaska State Troopers is high enough to warrant the hiring of 26 more sworn officers. Other communities, including the Southeast Alaska town of Haines, have asked the state for officers.
The Department of Public Safety budget unveiled by Dunleavy on Thursday increases the department’s staff by two.
“One of the demands are additional law-enforcement resources around the state, and it looks like we’re adding two positions. I could argue the two positions … may not meet the expectations of the Alaska public,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna. “What do we say to Alaskans?"
“What we say to Alaskans is we’re not going to ask for money that we can’t use,” Spencer said.
Spencer, attending the hearing in place of commissioner-designee Amanda Price, explained that the Dunleavy administration’s goal is to only ask for money it thinks it can spend. There are about 40 vacant trooper positions, he said. Those are jobs that are budgeted but not staffed because the Department of Public Safety has not been able to hire enough officers.
This year’s spring class at the state trooper academy in Sitka will include 18 trooper recruits, he said. The fall class should fill the remainder of the vacancies, he said.
Given the department’s long-term difficulty filling spots, “How come you’re so confident you can fill them this fall?” asked Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, R-Anchorage.
“I don’t know why,” Spencer said.
He offered one possibility. Last year, then-Gov. Bill Walker increased state trooper salaries by 7.5 percent and arranged for another 7 percent increase in trooper salaries to become effective in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. Dunleavy has kept that increase, which comes at a cost of about $9 million.
“Whether that’s driving this recruitment or not, I simply don’t know,” Spencer said.
Micciche was more confident about the effect, citing prior studies.
“I think it’s clearly made a difference. It’s made a difference in morale, and it’s made a difference (here),” he said.
A 2018 internal study examining the causes for abundance of trooper vacancies in the state said the lack of a pension program was the top reason. Another top reason was a lack of funding.
If the department is able to fill its vacancies, Spencer said it could come back to legislators next year with a request for more officers.
“Once we fill these, we will come to you and say, ‘OK, now we’re ready to move forward,’ and it’s our expectation that we would be looking to talk about additional funding when we get to that point,” he said.
The governor’s proposed public safety budget is $202 million, up $6.65 million from the current year, according to figures from the Office of Management and Budget. That figure does not include the $9 million salary increase, which OMB has made a separate line item outside the public safety budget.
Without the salary increase in the DPS budget, the state’s share of the department declines from the last year of the Walker administration. The only reason it rises overall is because of two large federal grants, including one $5 million program intended to fight drug trafficking.
While the governor makes filling trooper vacancies a priority in his budget, he is taking the opposite approach with the Village Public Safety Officer program: The new budget cuts $3 million from that effort.
Spencer said it’s because the administration does not believe the VPSO program can hire enough officers to spend the money otherwise. It has failed to do so in the past two years.
That cut raised the ire of Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin. Olson represents a district covering the North Slope, Northwest Arctic Borough and the Bering Strait coast, including Nome, where many tribal nonprofits have partnered with the state to hire VPSOs.
“That looks like a surrender to me,” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski, R-Anchorage, speaking about the VPSO cut.
“We are not admitting failure,” Spencer said. “The governor’s commitment is to not ask for money that is not going to be spent.”