With his proposed surcharge on auto insurance going nowhere fast, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski is pressing state lawmakers to find another way to fund 139 additional state troopers so the state can have 24-hour patrol coverage of major Oregon highways.
“If the members of the Legislature have a better idea … then I say let’s put it on the table and make it happen now,” Kulongoski said at a news conference where he was surrounded by a group of state troopers who back his plan.
Oregon has the country’s fewest number of state troopers per capita –one for every 14,285 residents — and the number has fallen from 665 in 1979 when dedicated funding was cut, to just 331 this year. The average state trooper hands out 18 DUIs, arrests 23 felons during routine traffic stops and investigates 31 crimes a year in Oregon, according to state police.
“Having troopers around and available you start to affect the driving behavior of the general public,” said Troy Consales, of the Transportation Safety Division of Oregon Department of Transportation. “In some case bad behavior has become habit because of the lack of troopers.”
In his 2007-09 budget proposal, Kulongoski suggested a surcharge on auto insurance premiums, estimated to cost the average family an additional $12 to $24 a year to pay for more troopers. The surcharge would not affect families that have the lowest cost plans.
House Speaker Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, and other lawmakers told the few dozen state police who came out to cheer Kulongoski’s speech that they support funding for at least another 100 troopers.
But some legislators don’t agree with the governor’s plans for dedicated funds.
“If you’ve done too much dedicated funding, you tie the hands of the Legislature,” said Russ Kelly, a spokesman Merkley. Dedicated funding should be used sparingly, Kelly said, so that funds are available to lawmakers in times of emergency.
But troopers argue that without permanent funding, public safety will be compromised because there aren’t enough state police on the road to stop drug runners, respond to accidents or help stranded motorists.
Between 2000 and 2004, when trooper levels dropped from 374 to a low of 241, police have said the number of speeding citations they issued fell by 29 percent.
“I can’t even get to my whole patrol area to see if there are any disabled motorists,” said Jed Rzegocki, a senior trooper who works in Jefferson County, where one trooper is responsible for policing the county’s 1,791 square miles and its 19,900 inhabitants.
“I’ve had people tell me that, ‘We’ve been out here for 15 hours and no one stopped,'” said Rzegocki.
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