Col. Wayne Huggins was grinning as he waited at the Capitol for the General Assembly to adopt a budget on Wednesday.
For Huggins, the two-year, $165 billion budget culminates years of work on a new pay plan to raise starting salaries for sworn officers of the Virginia State Police while rewarding veterans whose pay has lagged behind new hires.
The budget includes $46.5 million to fund the new plan, which also will dovetail with across-the-board raises of 10% over two years for all state employees as Virginia tries to bolster its government workforce as it hopes to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve finally got the problem solved,” said Huggins, 73, a former State Police superintendent and Fairfax County sheriff who is retiring as executive director of the Virginia State Police Association after 18 years. “We’re very pleased.”
The new budget would increase annual starting salaries for state police officers from $47,843 to $51,50 ($64,383 in Northern Virginia because of the higher cost of living).
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It also would fund a pay plan that ensures a 10% salary separation based on rank, so higher ranking officers don’t earn less than those they supervise, while increasing pay by 1.4% per year of service.
State police were not the only group of law enforcement and public safety officers to receive targeted pay relief in the budget, which also boosted starting pay for correctional officers and local sheriff’s deputies, while providing $47 million to local governments that operate police departments that often have been overlooked for state aid.
“The budget coming out of public safety was one of the best budgets in a long time,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who chairs the public safety subcommittee of Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee.
The budget includes almost $58.6 million for correctional officers to staunch an exodus of front-line staff at state prisons, as well as $7 million for probation and parole officers. Deputy sheriffs and officers at regional jails will receive $85.7 million. It also includes $1.9 million for a pay plan at the Division of Capitol Police.
The budget includes a 5% raise for state employees to take effect on July 10 for the Aug. 1 paycheck. Law enforcement, public safety and other employee groups who receive targeted pay increases of 7.5% or more will get a 2.5% across-the-board raise the first year.
The money will boost starting pay for correctional officers and deputies to $42,000, an increase of about $7,000 a year, and will help them deal with salary compression, which results when compensation for veteran employees lags behind the market rates for new hires.
“It’s a big step, it’s a lot of money, and we appreciate it,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, whose members don’t see the same level of local government support across the state.
The money helps, but won’t fully solve the problems correctional officers face. A legislative study last year found that more than a quarter of all correctional officer jobs were vacant, and one facility had a staff turnover rate of more than 50%.
Don Baylor, lobbyist for the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers, said the state lost more than 2,600 correctional officers last year alone, more than double the number in 2010, when the problem began to emerge during the Great Recession.
“It’s going to help to some extent, but it’s still not going to be enough to retain people,” Baylor said.
The budget compromise before Gov. Glenn Youngkin includes about $29 million less for correctional officer pay than then-Gov. Ralph Northam proposed in the spending plan he introduced in December, while adding money for probation and parole officers.
The challenge goes beyond pay to working conditions, Baylor said, with mandatory overtime compensating for lack of adequate staffing in “one of the toughest environments” for employees.
“Money isn’t the only answer to this,” he said.
Lucas said she recognizes the ongoing challenge of recruiting and retaining officers.
“I couldn’t fix it all in one budget cycle,” she said, “but I’m not going to stop working on it, for sure.”
Huggins can testify to the time it takes to address the problem of employee compensation, especially salary compression for veteran officers whose pay has lagged between raises that require General Assembly approval.
The legislature has addressed the salary compression issue for state police and law enforcement and public safety agencies in the budget six times, beginning in 2014. But salary compression has remained a challenge that Huggins often has described as a crisis for state police, which has more than 300 vacancies in its more than 2,000 jobs for sworn officers.
A compensation study last year found that the current pay structure made it harder to recruit new officers, retain veterans or promote them to higher positions that earned enough to offset the lost overtime.
Huggins and former Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, a retired senior state trooper from Southwest Virginia, tried unsuccessfully for several years to persuade the assembly to raise Virginia’s vehicle registration fee to generate a source of revenue dedicated to state police compensation.
Now, Carrico is succeeding Huggins as executive director of the association, with the battle appearing to be won. “Wayne had worked so hard on it, he wanted it to come to fruition,” said the former senator and delegate.
Said Huggins: “It’s just a way to pay people for their years of service that they’ve dedicated to the commonwealth.”