Nearly 22 percent of Pennsylvania’s population depends solely on the State Police for law enforcement coverage.
The state doesn’t charge an additional fee if a municipality opts out of having its own department — an increasingly common choice for small, rural areas.
The way state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, sees it, “Those people are getting free police protection.”
On Tuesday, Sturla, Gov. Tom Wolf, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, gathered in the Capitol to — once again — to push for a fee on those municipalities.
“Some municipalities are not paying their fair share,” Wolf said, adding that legislation from Costa and Sturla moves to “correct that imbalance.”
The State Police are now funded in large part through a state account called the Motor License Fund, which is earmarked for bridge and road repairs. Lawmakers have stretched that definition to include State Police services.
“It was not a good and wise use of our Motor License Fund dollars,” Sturla said.
In 2016, the Legislature capped the amount of money from the fund that can be spent on the State Police.
The amount will gradually wind down to $500 million tops by the 2027-28 budget. And that’s put even more pressure on lawmakers to come up with other reliable funding streams.
Enter companion House and Senate bills from Sturla and Costa creating a sliding scale of fees for municipalities that do not have local law enforcement departments. The cost would range between $8 and $166 per-capita, depending on population size.
According to Sturla’s office, it costs the State Police $234 per-person to patrol areas without local coverage.
Costa pointed to Hempfield Township in Westmoreland County, where his wife’s family lives. He described the municipality, which does not have its own department, as a “wonderful place to live” with a thriving business district. The median household income is $62,533, according to census data.
Under Sturla’s plan, Hempfield Township would get the biggest bill — a hefty $6.55 million.
“It’s about tax fairness,” Costa said.
Of course, that’s not how everyone sees it.
Dave Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, previously told the Capital-Star his organization opposes “any legislation that would mandate or force any community to pay extra money for a state service that everybody already pays for.”
Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, described the fee as “a form of double taxation on predominantly rural communities” in a 2017 op-ed for the Sharon Herald in Mercer County.
“Every Pennsylvanian pays for state police coverage through state income and sales taxes, driver licensing fees, gas taxes, fines and other levies paid by citizens in urban and rural areas alike,” Martin wrote. “Most communities that carry a heavier tax burden in order to fund their own local police force do so because they choose to, not because they are forced to.”
Same problem, same politics?
Sturla has been trying to pass a State Police fee for at least 15 years, he said Tuesday.
Years ago, when “budgets were flush” and Pennsylvania was only diverting $200 million out of the Motor License Fund, it was hard to get people to take the fee seriously, he said.
But by 2016, the amount being pulled out of the Motor License Fund had grown to more than $800 million — “a fair chunk of money,” Sturla said.
With the amount of money the Legislature can take out the fund now capped, the State Police are “in danger of experiencing an immediate budget crisis,” State Police Commissioner Col. Robert Evanchick said Tuesday.
“Demand continues to grow” for State Police services, he added. “Obligations continue to increase.”
A State Police fee would raise a little more than $100 million in its first year, Sturla said — “a bargain by any stretch of the word.”
Sturla and Wolf said they hope the bills will be part of the next budget, which is due June 30. So far, they’ve had no commitments from GOP leadership.
Both men emphasized that this is a political can that can’t be kicked down the road for much longer. The Motor Fund cap means more money will have to come out of the General Fund in the future, which Sturla said isn’t a solution to the issue.
“I just think we’ve been ignoring it,” Wolf said. “We can’t do that anymore.”
Costa noted that in the past year, the General Assembly has welcomed dozens of new members.
“Folks now are keenly aware of the transportation crisis we have,” he said.
Sturla and Wolf said they are open to considering alternatives from the GOP. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, favors a flat fee on municipalities with a population above 10,000.
“If I ruled the world, I’d take all $600 million tomorrow,” Sturla said. “This is a baby step.”