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In a move that went under the radar for most Pennsylvanians, Gov. Tom Wolf has given up his call for local municipalities to pay a fee for primarily relying on State Police for protection.
Thanks to the state receiving $3.5 billion in federal pandemic aid, Wolf said he would give the State Police $144 million from the state’s general fund so the money from the fees would no longer be needed.
It wasn’t clear if Wolf was waving a white flag on this issue or simply facing the political reality that the Republican-controlled Legislature would never approve the fees. The fees have been strongly opposed by Republican legislators who represent rural communities which rely primarily on state police for protection.
Interestingly, such fees were first proposed by Republican Gov. Tom Ridge. Several other of Wolf’s predecessors also backed the fees over the years to no avail.
However, it’s a shame that the fees have been shelved because there was a lot of merit to them.
The best thing about the fees is they would have been an important source of revenue for the state. Last year, when Wolf was still pushing the fees, he estimated that they would bring in $168 million.
The fees could have been used, at least in part, to decrease the huge amounts of money that the state has had to pay over the years in transfers from the general fund to the state police.
Back in 2019, then-state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale noted a new audit of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation showed that transfers from the Motor License Fund to the State Police totaled $4.25 billion since the 2012-12 fiscal year.
DePasquale said the state budget in 2019 called for spending $738 million on the state police. He said the fees from local municipalities could have been used to fix the 2,829 structurally deficient bridges and numerous other highways across the state, in need of repair.
“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 5 years,” he said.
While the state won’t see the revenue from the fees, it will also put an end to any conversations about how the state police could be used more efficiently.
Toward that end, does it make sense to have state police chasing down those involved with knocking over mailboxes in rural areas? Shouldn’t the state police be doing something more productive with their time?
After all, state police are some of the best police officers in the country with their training lasting for 28 weeks. It costs a small fortune to train, feed, and house them during that time.
And when it’s over, new troopers start out making $64,637 a year with generous fringe benefits and retirement packages. Of course, it’s well-deserved money, considering these men and women put their lives on the line every day to protect you and me.
We should be making better use of all the money we’re spending on troopers. In an ideal world, rural areas would have local or regional police for everyday coverage. They could pay for whatever protection they need, be it based on an hour or days of the week.
That would free up the state police to work on more serious crimes such as homicides, drug dealing, and sexual assaults. They could be called in by the regional police whenever their help is needed.
The fees also would have lifted the unfair tax burden residents of residents in places like Uniontown, Fayette County. There the residents pay not only for state police but for local police while residents in nearby South Union Township and North Union Township only pay for state police.
The result is that taxes are much higher in Uniontown than in North Union and South Union townships forcing many residents to flee the city. Now the townships will continue to develop while Uniontown will continue to decline for doing the right thing. It’s a situation that is taking place in many communities across the commonwealth.
There could have at least been some discussion of these problems, but they will never take place thanks to Republican lawmakers who are only interested in trying to make sure their residents never have to pay a nickel more for police protection. They show no concern for residents all across the state who could benefit from the fees.
In the end, you can’t blame Wolf for not pushing an idea that doesn’t have a chance to become reality, but it’s still a shame that such a good proposal will never see the light of day. It’s even sadder that it will never even be discussed. But that’s the sorry state of affairs for Pennsylvania residents these days.
Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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