Robbing highways to fund state police
It’s no secret that Pennsylvania has the highest gasoline taxes in the nation. To get to that dubious position, residents were told in 2013 that they needed to feel some pain because our roads and bridges were in such bad shape that something urgent needs to be done.
The state General Assembly passed and then-Gov. Tom Corbett signed a $2.4 billion infrastructure-spending package that would raise the wholesale tax on gasoline in three steps starting in 2014 and ending in 2017. Prior to that, gas taxes had not risen in the state since 1997.
Although most motorists groused about the increases, they accepted the notion that we needed to do something about our dangerous roads and bridges to prevent the kinds of disasters which occurred in other states during the last 50 years, including bridge collapses in Minnesota, New York, Indiana, Georgia, California and Florida that killed a total of 95 people.
Now, however, the state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has issued an audit of the state Department of Transportation which shows that a lot of the money that was supposed to go to infrastructure improvement has been diverted to pay for state police operations.
The audit shows that $4.25 billion has been diverted from the Motor License Fund to the state police since the 2012-13 budget year. This, DePasquale said, is money that could otherwise have been used for repairs.
“More than 2,800 state-maintained bridges across Pennsylvania are structurally deficient, and our bridges average over 50 years in age — beyond what they were designed to last,” DePasquale said. “That $4.25 billion could have cut that list in half, and if PennDOT could use all of the gas tax money for roads and bridges we could get that number to zero in about five years.”
“I’m surprised we needed an audit to tell us this. After all, the auditor general served in the state House of Representatives and should have already known this was the case,” state Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, said last week.
Heffley said a study was conducted in 2015 to determine cost of the state police for patrolling our highway system. “The committee estimated that amount to be $500 million per year. PennDOT is currently transferring more than $700 million a year into the state police fund. So, we passed legislation to phase that back and put the additional money into the Motor License Fund.”
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, criticized DePasquale, a Democrat who is expected to run for governor in 2022, as a shameless publicity seeker in issuing a report that seems to be a new disclosure, when, in fact, it is not.
“The General Assembly has been actively working to reduce the funding dependence of the state police on the Motor License Fund so that we have more money for road and bridge repair,” Saylor said in a news release.
Saylor said, “In fact, two years ago the General Assembly passed legislation that was signed into law to gradually reduce state police funding from the Motor License Fund.”
Most legislators from the five-county Times News area of Carbon, Schuylkill, Northampton, Monroe and Lehigh were against the increased tax when it came to a vote in 2013. The exceptions were State Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, and Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh.
Schlossberg said he does not feel betrayed because of the diversion of the funds, because he knows the state police need the money to provide protection to municipalities which rely on them.
He said he supports Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to help cover this financial gap by assessing these municipalities anywhere from $8 to $166 a person, depending on their size. The larger the municipality without local police coverage, the higher the assessment.
Just as with his previous $25-a-head proposal, Wolf’s newest idea is not getting much political traction among Republican legislators who control both houses of the state legislature, because their rural communities rely almost exclusively on state police coverage. They see this assessment as a ``double tax” since residents already support the state police in the annual general fund budget.
Judging from DePasquale’s comments on the PennDOT audit, he is questioning whether this money can be diverted in the first place. Under the state Constitution, proceeds from the Motor License Fund are to be used solely for the construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges, he said.
“While state police certainly deserve to be adequately funded, I don’t think anyone is thrilled about seeing gas tax revenues being siphoned off for purposes other than improving our roads and bridges,” DePasquale said.
Saylor said DePasquale needs to aim his magnifying glass elsewhere.``Instead of seeking publicity for things we already know, it is time that the auditor general focus on investigating things like Medicaid fraud or why the Commonwealth has wasted over $1 billion on a radio system for the state police that never worked.”
By BRUCE FRASSINELLI | firstname.lastname@example.org