When Mike LeDoux joined the Minnesota State Patrol 25 years ago, landing a coveted job on the force was considered a fortunate feat for someone in law enforcement.

But times have changed, as the State Patrol struggles to recruit and retain officers.

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Last year Minnesota lost 17 troopers, who left the force prior to retirement.

“We’re starting to lose numbers like we never have, and if we don’t maintain our competitiveness that means fewer people on the road,” LeDoux said.

Meanwhile, the Patrol’s latest training academy remains three recruits under capacity.

“That speaks volumes,” said Rep. Jack Considine Jr., DFL-Mankato, the co-author of a bill that would give troopers a raise.

In recent years, State Patrol pay has slipped in relation to many other law enforcement jobs in Minnesota, said LeDoux, vice president of the Minnesota State Patrol Troopers Association.

He noted that from 2003 to 2013, troopers endured five years of frozen pay.

LeDoux said the starting wage for the State Patrol - $54,789 per year - ranks well below what many first-year police officers make.

A recent state survey of pay by the St. Paul Police Federation shows 23 police departments provide better starting pay, with Minneapolis atop the list, providing rookie officers $63,846 per year, as of Dec. 31, 2017.

The earnings gap only widens with time. Trooper pay maxes out after eight years at $72,307. A police officer with similar experience would make more money at 26 other local police departments, according to the same survey. As of 2017, an eight-year veteran of the Eden Prairie Police Department could expect to pull down $89,931 in annual pay, the highest in the state for an officer of same tenure.

And while trooper pay tops off after eight years, most police officers’ wages continue to grow in subsequent years.

“They’re considerably down on the pay scale,” Considine said. “And frankly, the State Patrol are our elite road warriors.”

LeDoux noted that law enforcement officers are in fierce demand these days, and the cost of replacing a single trooper lured away by another job is considerable. New recruits go through a 17-week training academy at Camp Ripley and then undergo extensive field training before they are deemed “road ready.” On average, he said it costs about $31,900 in pay to train a new officer.

Unless something is done to provide more equitable compensation soon, LeDoux fears the State Patrol will lose more officers and will find itself ever more short-handed.

“We can either address this or we’re going to eventually lack the individuals necessary to perform vital functions,” he said.

Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, a co-author of the bill, contends that something must be done.

“One of the primary reasons that I signed onto this bill is that I feel like if the Legislature doesn’t step in and do something, this could lead to a downward spiral for our State Patrol, and I don’t want to see that happen. It’s such an important organization for our state, from a public safety perspective,” he said.

Companion bills introduced in the Minnesota House and Senate would tie State Patrol pay to that of police officers. It proposes trooper compensation should be based on an average of the seven highest-paid police departments in the state. If passed, the bill would require State Patrol members be paid at least 90 percent of that average in 2021; 92.5 percent of that average in 2022; and 95 percent of that average in 2023.

“The phase-in is because we didn’t get here overnight, and we’re trying to be reasonable. We know we’re not going to get out of here overnight either,” LeDoux said.

Simonson said he believes the bill offers a reasonable solution.

“It’s not like they’re asking for top pay. I think they’re just asking for a fair shake, and this bill starts that conversation,” he said.

Other states have passed legislation governing State Patrol pay, similar to what’s being proposed in Minnesota. LeDoux pointed to Colorado, California, Washington, Texas, Montana and Nebraska as examples.

The Minnesota State Patrol Troopers Association proposed a legislative fix only after serious deliberation, LeDoux said.

“The negative side of drawing all this public attention to our pay is that it makes it harder to recruit people, because now we’ve shined this bright light on the issue. … So there’s a risk associated with it. But in a nutshell, we’ve been fighting an uphill battle trying to improve this situation for about eight to 10 years, and we’re not making the necessary progress,” he said.