PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The state Secretary of Public Safety spent more than an hour Thursday defending the Noem administration’s recent decision to raise starting pay for South Dakota Highway Patrol troopers.

Secretary Craig Price told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that the $1.50 increase, from $23.61 to $25.11 per hour, can probably be covered within the current budget.

Price, a former superintendent for the patrol, said vacancies caused by turnover within the patrol’s ranks would cover most or all of it. The patrol has 201 troopers, with 22 positions currently vacant.

He said the recent decision by the state Department of Corrections to increase starting hourly wages for state correctional officers to $23.50 was one of the reasons.

Price provided charts showing negative trends for the patrol on applications and retention. He said SDHP troopers are currently at 94% of market, even with the raise.

His department’s finance director, Angela Lemieux, estimated the additional spending for salary and benefits will total about $513,000 this year. She said work is under way to determine whether to ask the Legislature next year for more money.

“I don’t think we’ll be that short. We may be a little short,” Lemieux said.

Representative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican who co-chairs the committee, said he didn’t recall Highway Patrol pay increases discussed last winter during the panel’s consideration of the Department of Public Safety budget.

“It’s just not our normal practice in the interim to go through this process,” Karr said. He added, “I’m not saying it’s not needed, I’m not saying it’s not warranted, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be more.”