Amid high levels of economic uncertainty across the state, members of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee narrowly defeated an effort to allow counties to raise the pay of their top law enforcement officers by a 7-6 vote Tuesday.
The legislation, which would not have taken effect until the next midterm elections in 2023, would have set the groundwork for an increase to the state’s $100,000 salary cap for elected sheriffs and county attorneys, many of whom currently make less than members of their staff.
The move — which was officially supported by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police — was pitched by supporters as a means of increasing local control for counties where salaries for both positions were uncompetitive compared to the private sector or even within their own departments. The salary caps for county attorneys and sheriffs have not been increased since 2009 and 2011, respectively, as the state’s cost of living has increased and private sector pay has grown more competitive.
According to data presented to committee members, roughly one-third of all counties across the state have already maxed out their salary caps for their county attorneys while, among police officers, county sheriffs can make tens of thousands of dollars less than their local chiefs of police.
This was of particular concern in places like Teton County, whose county attorney, Erin Weisman, has three deputy attorneys making tens of thousands of dollars more than she does.
And according to data presented to the committee, Campbell, Sheridan and Sweetwater Counties will soon all have deputy attorneys making more than their bosses, a fact advocates said could dissuade qualified candidates from seeking elected office.
“I think it’s necessary,” Weisman told committee members in her testimony.
While any pay raises made would have been implemented at the local level, legislators were nonetheless hesitant about the optics of opening the door to spending more money during a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty. County officials would have had the final say on how much officials would ultimately receive, but the proposed salary cap increases — $160,000 for county attorneys (in line with the salary cap for district court judges) and $140,000 for county sheriffs — were still too high, prompting lawmakers to defeat a proposal to draft a bill by a single vote.
Co-chairs Rep. Dan Kirkbride, R-Chugwater, and Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, voted in favor of the bill, joined by Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne; Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie; Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette; and Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Greybull.
Those opposed included Rep. Tim Salazar, R-Riverton; Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs; Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs; Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper; and Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan. Former police chiefs Rep. Bill Pownall, R-Gillette, and Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, also voted against the proposal.
While the vote resulted in a fiscally conservative approach in the short term, those who testified argued that the pay increases were a necessary tool for communities to shore up their justice systems several years into the future. At least one county in Wyoming allowed a resident from out of county to run after a lack of qualified candidates and — as salaries in county public defenders offices continue to rise — county leaders stressed the importance of ensuring a balance of talent in the prosecutor’s offices, particularly when trying to entice top talent to represent the public in court.
Salaries commensurate to other areas of the judicial branch are considered to be a best practice nationwide as well: Both the National District Attorneys Association and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals have advocated for equitable pay for prosecutors and the judges operating in the same jurisdiction as a way to staff all aspects of the criminal justice system with equal levels of talent.
However, while the counties would bear most of the salary increases, the state would still be on the hook for some of the money to fund any potential pay increase: Since 2007, the state has committed to paying 50 percent or $30,000 of a county attorney’s salary, whichever is less, after a number of counties vocalized difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified candidates.
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