The Pa. Legislature should resolve to tackle infrastructure funding in 2020 | Mark O’Keefe

By: - December 26, 2019 6:30 am

There could be some serious in-fighting among Republicans in the state House of Representatives when the Legislature sets up shop in the coming year.

In a recent statement from her office, state Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia said that that a House task force on transportation funding had concluded that shortfalls in funding for transportation improvements is linked, in part, to the spending of Motor License Fund money on non-transportation-related projects.

White who heads the task force, said it was formed to give a comprehensive overview of Pennsylvania’s transportation system and its funding mechanisms.

It was created in July 2019 by Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), who selected 10 House Republican members reportedly based on their experience on the Appropriations and Transportation committees. The members were also chosen because they apparently represent a diverse cross section of the state.

White said the task force concluded that shortfalls in funding for transportation were widespread, including $4.5 billion diverted to the Pennsylvania State Police from the fund since 2012-13.

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“Our review of the state’s transportation infrastructure revealed crumbling roads, failing bridges, aging railcars and buses, along with congested highways and inner-city gridlock,” White said. “Yet, despite legislation, like Act 89 of 2013, to raise funds for transportation, many projects have stalled, and maintenance has been delayed.”

She added that “As a result of the diversions, only 27 percent of PennDOT’s projects in 2017 were completed.”

White said the task force recommended, “Expediting the transfer of state police funding to a General Fund obligation. By ending these diversions, transportation priorities would be completed, and new projects could begin.”

One proposed bill would allow the state police to keep revenue from traffic tickets rather than putting the money into a general fund. Another bill would cut the Motor License Fund shift from $533 million a year to about $50 million yearly over the next 10 years.

However, it’s not clear that those proposals would be enough to keep the state police from having to make drastic cuts to its budget.

The issue of funding state police is nothing new. Governors all the way back to Tom Ridge in the 90s, have proposed charging municipalities who rely solely on state police. It was revived this year by Gov. Tom Wolf, who proposed a series of fees, depending on the size of the municipalities involved.

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Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, told the Morning Call of Allentown that the fee was a necessary alternative, yielding about $106 million yearly. He said it would help fund three new cadet classes to improve public safety.

“The fee represents a fraction of what 10 million Pennsylvanians already pay to support their local and regional police departments,” Abbott told the newspaper.

The measure was soundly rejected by Republicans, never even coming up for a vote. The GOP lawmakers noted that many of the municipalities in their districts would have to raise property taxes to pay the fees. They said it was a particularly bad idea, because residents would be paying more in taxes without getting any guarantees about improved services.

The controversial fee on Pennsylvania State Police coverage, explained

The number of municipalities that rely fully on state police outnumber the municipalities that pay for their own police force by a margin of 1,291 to 851, according to the Associated Press.

Most of the municipalities that rely solely on state police are located in rural parts of the state and are represented by Republican lawmakers who control both the state Senate and House of Representatives.

Is there any chance that Republicans lawmakers representing these areas will ever agree to some sort of change in the status quo?

Well both White and  Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, the chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that now is the right time for the Legislature to act.

“We need to take corrective measures to address the diversion of funds away from transportation,” White said in an interview. “The time really is now. We really need to get this done.”

Ward said the state’s financial condition has improved in the past few years as a result of the strong economy. The issues weren’t dealt with earlier,  she said, because the state had trouble balancing its budget and didn’t have any other sources for the revenue.

“If not now, when?” Ward said.“Where are we going to get the money is always the question. We’re in good shape here. We don‘t have to raise taxes to do it,”

White said the end goal is, “To make sure the money collected for roads and bridges is spent there to benefit the people who live and work in Pennsylvania.”

Will that ever actually happen? Stay tuned.

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Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.