The controversial fee on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, explained

Gov. Tom Wolf in 2015 with graduating State Police cadets. (Flickr)

Like diamonds and a mother’s love, some things are timeless — including the perennial fight over a proposed fee on Pennsylvania municipalities that rely solely on State Police.

In his 2019-20 budget, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a sliding scale based on population size: Municipalities with full-time State Police coverage would pay between $8 and $166 per capita, bringing in an estimated $103.9 million in revenue. Previously, Wolf (unsuccessfully) raised the idea of a flat $25-per-person fee for areas that lack a local police force.

So why is this such a contentious and long-running debate? Let’s dig in.

Give me the history.

You’d be forgiven for not remembering every twist and turn in this decades-old battle.

The fee dates back to Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who proposed the idea three times between 1995 and 1999, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from that decade. Ridge wanted a flat fee to apply to municipalities with a population above 9,000.

Former Govs. Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett, a Democrat and Republican, respectively, put forth similar plans.

Outside of the executive, Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, has introduced fee legislation for a decade. None have made it over the finish line.

How is the agency funded?

The more than $1 billion it costs to operate the State Police comes from the general and Motor License funds. Money from the latter is earmarked for highway and bridge repairs. But that hasn’t stopped governors and the General Assembly from diverting hundreds of millions to State Police operations.

In 2016, the legislature capped the amount of Motor License money that can be moved to state police coffers. The amount will gradually wind down to $500 million tops by the 2027-28 budget. That’s put even more pressure on lawmakers to come up with other reliable funding streams.

Which municipalities use State Police full-time?

The department provides full-time coverage to 1,296 municipalities in the commonwealth, primarily in rural areas.

Roughly a quarter of Pennsylvania’s population relies on the force on a full- or part-time basis, according to an analysis by Rep. Matthew Bradford, of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

How does that work?

State Police troopers respond to calls in these areas, but they do not enforce local ordinances. About 75 percent of the calls fielded by troopers come from places without local police departments, per an analysis by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

Statewide, State Police also provide special services like crime lab analysis.

So what’s the problem?

Representatives of small, local governments argue they would be charged twice and get nothing extra.

“Our organization has been historically opposed to any legislation that would mandate or force any community to pay extra money for a state service that everybody already pays for,” Dave Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, said.

Sanko argues that, since every working person pays the income tax that supplies money to the general fund, these municipalities are already paying their fair share.

Some communities “choose” to have local police departments, he said, for a variety of reasons. If municipalities are happy with State Police coverage, why should they pay more?

“If State Police want to sit back and say we want to charge everybody for their services, that’s a different discussion.”

What do troopers think?

The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association is in favor of the proposal, mainly because of how stretched the agency is.

Association President David Kennedy told WITF, “Pennsylvania is currently 500 troopers below its complement.” Wolf’s budget earmarks nearly $10 million to fund three cadet classes.

So is the fee actually going to happen this year?

Unclear.

As Sturla pointed out in an interview with PennLive, some Republican leaders in the General Assembly represent areas with full-time State Police coverage. “They may try to kibosh it,” he said, because of the additional cost to their constituents.

Rep. Stan Saylor, the Republican chair of the House Appropriations Committee, told the Morning Call the fee plan won’t pass. Saylor instead favors a flat fee on municipalities with a population of 10,000 or more. His proposal went nowhere last session.

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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