A modest proposal to fund transportation — without raising taxes | Opinion

May 9, 2019 6:30 am

Pa. State Police SUV (Pa. State Police Facebook Page

By James Van Buren

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale attracted statewide attention recently with an audit showing that during the last six years, Pennsylvania had diverted more than $4.2 billion in revenue intended to be used to fix and maintain the state’s roads and bridges. Instead, that money was used to fund State Police operations.

While that diverted amount has grown quite large in recent years, the practice of redirecting revenue generated by fuel taxes and license and registration fees has been going on for much longer.

A visit to my organization’s website, the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association, shows that since the 2001-02 fiscal year, a whopping $9 billion has been shifted from our bridge and highway system to help pay for State Police operations.

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires that revenue from those taxes and fees be dedicated for bridges and highways. Unfortunately, it has become convenient and relatively easy for elected officials to dip into the constitutionally protected Motor License Fund to help pay for other things -– without raising taxes.

In addition to State Police operations, Motor License Fund resources have been allocated to the Department of Agriculture for assuring the accuracy of gas pumps and, more recently, to help start the Real ID program, whose national security aim is a far cry from highway use.

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Recently, news organizations across the state began to notice that gas prices were creeping up around $3 per gallon once again. And many of them pointed out that Pennsylvania is said to have the highest gasoline taxes in the country at about 58 cents per gallon.

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Each penny of the gas tax generates about $65 million per year, which means that the $801 million diversion from the Motor License Fund in the last fiscal year amounted to more than one-fifth of the revenue intended for highway construction and maintenance but, instead, was used for something else.

The highway construction industry has no reason to question the State Police funding level. But the source of three-quarters of the State Police operating budget ought not be a burden on the motoring public, particularly when the condition of roads and bridges across the Commonwealth is quite poor.

Two years ago, the General Assembly began to roll back the amount of the annual diversion from the Motor License Fund by 4 percent per year. At that rate, it would take nearly a half-century to reduce the subsidy to $100 million.

We have a better idea. If a penny of gas tax yields $65 million, step up the reduction to $65 million per year.

In 12 years, the subsidy would no longer exist, all of the liquid fuel taxes and license and registration fees would be used as they were intended. And our bridge and highway program would be adequately funded – without raising taxes.

How hard would this be for the governor and General Assembly? Finding a cost savings of $65 million amounts to less than 2 percent out of a General Fund budget of $30 billion-plus.

Again, we note – without raising taxes.

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Motorists would be saving hundreds of dollars a year in vehicle maintenance and repair. And our roads would be smoother, safer and less congested. Our economy would have an essential tool to grow, we would prosper and enjoy a higher quality of life.

And one last time, we note – without raising taxes.

James Van Buren is president of PennStress, maker of high-performance prestressed precast concrete, Roaring Spring, PA, and of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association, Harrisburg.

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