JACKSON -- Mississippi Highway Patrol officers are calling on lawmakers to spend millions of dollars to train more troopers and to buy new cars and safety equipment, including bulletproof vests.
More than 100 uniformed, off-duty troopers went to the Capitol on Wednesday to rally for their requests.
"We're respectfully asking our legislators to hear us, to hear our plea for help," said Greenwood-based Master Sgt. Jimmie Thomas, president of the Mississippi State Troopers Association.
Legislators are in the final few weeks of writing a $6 billion state budget for fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1. At this point, it's not clear how much they'll set aside for the Highway Patrol.
Mississippi has about 500 troopers now, but officials say the ideal number is about 650. The last trooper training school was in 2011, with about 50 graduates.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who started his career in the 1970s as a Hinds County deputy sheriff, has said for months that a trooper training school is one of his priorities this year.
"As God is my witness, help is on the way," Bryant said during a news conference in the Capitol rotunda.
The earliest budget recommendation from top lawmakers does not include money for a trooper training school. But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Eugene "Buck" Clarke, R-Hollandale, said last week that about $6.9 million could be added before a final spending plan is adopted.
House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said too few troopers are on the roads. He told of seeing a driver weaving in traffic on a Friday evening. Gunn said he called the Highway Patrol to report the potentially dangerous situation, and he was told the nearest trooper was about 45 minutes away.
"It boils down to the safety of our citizens," Gunn said.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has
sharply criticized Department of Public Safety leaders in recent months, saying they're spending too much on administration and not enough on troopers. Last fall, when Commissioner of Public Safety Albert Santa Cruz presented his budget request for fiscal year 2015, he angered Reeves and other top lawmakers by providing little information and giving vague answers to their questions. The commissioner is appointed by the governor.
Troopers held their news conference at 10 a.m. Wednesday, the same time Reeves was presiding over the Senate. He said in a news release that lawmakers will consider several requests during final budget negotiations, including a trooper school and pay raises for sheriffs, tax collectors, county supervisors and teachers.
"We have a lot more good ideas than we have money," Reeves said. "You will see Senate and House leadership sit down in a few weeks to look at what taxpayers can afford and what best meets the needs of the state."