A guest post by James Van Buren, president of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association (PHIA), Harrisburg.
A recent article in the York Daily Record detailed how some communities are considering abandoning their municipal or regional police forces, opting instead for “free” police coverage from the Pennsylvania State Police.
Pennsylvania has 2,561 municipalities, and as the Daily Record pointed out, 67 percent receive some level of State Police coverage. A total of 1,274 – barely under half – receive no police coverage other than from the State Police.
Of course, we all recognize that nothing is “free,” so who exactly pays for “free” state police coverage? If you own or drive a car or truck or have a drivers’ license, you do.
Under our state constitution, all revenue derived from liquid fuel taxes, vehicle registrations, drivers’ license fees and some fines go into the state’s Motor License Fund. From there, the revenue can only be used “for highway purposes.”
The State Police performs a variety of law enforcement services. Its website lists the following: major case team, patrol services, forensic services, collision analysis and reconstruction, vehicle fraud investigators, Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center (PaCIC), Amber Alert activations, liquor control enforcement, polygraph, Fire Marshal, K-9 unit, aviation patrol, drug recognition services, Special Emergency Response Team (SERT), Clandestine Lab Response Team, hazardous device and explosives, equestrian detail and computer crime unit.
While patrolling highways qualifies as a “highway purpose,” the agency certainly does not spend two-thirds of its time, attention and resources doing that. Yet two-thirds of the entire State Police budget is diverted from the Motor License Fund, and that proportion is growing.
The current state budget proposal calls for a $78 million increase in Motor License Fund support for the State Police compared with last year, a total of nearly $758 million in a budget of just under $1.2 billion. Of the approximately 55 cents per gallon in taxes currently levied on gasoline users (69 cents for diesel), about 12 cents per gallon goes to the State Police budget.
The diversion of highway funding has been a bipartisan undertaking, beginning in the administration of Republican Tom Ridge, gaining more steam during the tenure of Democrat Ed Rendell, still growing under Republican Tom Corbett and reaching an all-time high in the proposed budget of Gov. Tom Wolf.
Why does this happen? Because elected officials fear there would be voter backlash from increasing sales, income or business taxes, so they prefer to quietly divert money from somewhere else.
In 2013, the General Assembly and Governor Corbett approved Act 89, which will increase Motor License Fund revenue by $2.3 billion per year, ostensibly for transportation. We knew from our periodic public opinion polling that nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania voters consistently supported investing an additional $2.50 per week in order to improve safety and relieve congestion in our transportation system (that amount reflects the impact of Act 89 on a typical driver).
Last spring, a year and a half after passage of Act 89, we asked voters the following question in another poll:
“In 2013, Pennsylvania increased gasoline taxes and license and registration fees to pay for transportation improvements. Would you favor or oppose using some of this money to fund other non-transportation items in the state budget?”
Not surprisingly, 80 percent opposed diverting the money, with 61 percent of them strongly opposed.
Consequently, everyone who owns or drives a vehicle or has a drivers’ license is contributing three-quarters of a billion dollars to the State Police budget, an amount that will reach a billion within the next few years at the rate that it’s growing now.
Moreover, if you live in a community that has its own police force or that participates in a regional police force, you’re paying twice. Not only do you pay for your local police coverage, you’re also subsidizing “free” State Police coverage in half of the municipalities across Pennsylvania.
Is it important to fund the State Police? Of course. Is it fair to do so by diverting money that was supposed to be used to bring our transportation infrastructure up to an acceptable standard, and forcing Pennsylvanians who are already paying for police coverage to pay for it twice?
No, it’s not, and our elected officials need to address this growing inequity and deliver to voters what was promised to them in Act 89.
James Van Buren is president of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association (PHIA), Harrisburg. For more information about PHIA, please visit www.PaHighwayInfo.org.
The Triadvocate is a publication of Triad Strategies, LLC, a bipartisan lobbying, public affairs, strategic communications, grassroots advocacy, issue management consulting firm located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh