The South Carolina Senate's version of next year's budget includes money to hire 40 new troopers and give current troopers a raise, but the House's version of the budget does not. Senators say the increasing number of drivers in the state, along with previous budget cuts that reduced the number of troopers, are good reasons to beef up the Highway Patrol.
Right now, the Highway Patrol has 768 troopers, down from 967 in 2008. The Patrol has plans for two trooper classes this fiscal year, one that starts training in July and the other in January, 2014. Those two classes should bring the number of troopers up to about 850.
Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, who chairs the budget subcommittee that handles public safety, says it's important to bring the Highway Patrol's number back up to previous levels. "Response time to accidents on our Interstates, that's particularly important. It could be a minor accident and yet back up traffic for miles and miles and miles," he says.
But Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, a former Greenville Police officer, says there's no reason to put money in the budget for more troopers because the Patrol already has 100 vacancies. "The academy says they can train two classes of troopers a year, which is maximum 50 troopers per class. So there's no need in putting funded slots in place if you can't put them in the field."
But Highway Patrol Commander Col. Mike Oliver says the Criminal Justice Academy can handle more than two classes. And he says even though the Patrol has 100 vacancies, the agency's budget could not pay the salaries of all 100 without additional money in next year's budget.
He says the number of troopers on the road affects safety. "Visibility and then education and enforcement -- those are the three things that we can do to save lives in South Carolina. That's our mission, is saving lives. The more troopers that we have in the field, then obviously our ability to do that is greatly enhanced," he says.
The Patrol reports that there were 12 fatalities over the Memorial Day weekend, the most in three years for the holiday.
The House and Senate must still work out a final version of the state budget.
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