Will crumbling bridges force Pennsylvania to approve a fee for State Police?

PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards with Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. (Courtesy Auditor General's office)

Updated 3 p.m.

Harrisburg’s Market Street Bridge provided an appropriate backdrop Thursday, as Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called on the Legislature to stop diverting money to the State Police that’s supposed to pay for repairs to deteriorating infrastructure.

As past budget debates have shown, that’s easier said than done.

The bridge, which spans the Susquehanna River to connect Wormleysburg to Harrisburg, is one of thousands in the state considered structurally deficient, or in poor condition. The General Assembly and then-GOP Gov. Tom Corbett tried to grapple with Pennsylvania’s crumbling transportation infrastructure in 2013 by raising the gas tax to the highest in the U.S. and earmarking the money for bridge and road repairs.

But over the past six years, the state has diverted $4.25 billion from the dedicated Motor License Fund to the State Police, according to a report from the Auditor General’s Office.

“That is money that PennDOT could otherwise have used to address a growing list of repairs needed across the state, including those 2,828 structurally deficient state-owned bridges,” DePasquale said Thursday.

The Pennsylvania State Police have seen their operating costs dramatically rise in recent years, as more and more municipalities opt out of the expense of having their own police departments. Personnel costs for the State Police rose from more than $600 million in fiscal year 2006-07 to $1 billion-plus a decade later, according to a House Appropriations Committee analysis.

But as costs have skyrocketed, the Legislature has failed to resolve a decades-old debate about how exactly to pay for the State Police.

Gov. Tom Wolf, like Democrats and Republicans before him, has again proposed to levy a sliding, per capita fee on municipalities that rely solely on the State Police. A completed budget is due in just over two months, but at the moment it’s not clear where that proposal stands.

Administration spokesperson J.J. Abbott said he doesn’t know if the Legislature will support the per capita fee.

“The impact of the Motor License Fund transfer to the Pennsylvania State Police on other projects is a problem that has existed for years. However, it is important to note that the budget now caps and decreases this transfer each year,” Abbott said.

That’s true. In 2016, the Legislature agreed to cap how much of the Motor License Fund can be diverted to the State Police, with the amount winding down to $500 million by the 2027-28 budget. For the past few budget cycles, a whopping 17 percent of the fund’s revenues have gone to police, rather than transportation.

But a recent report by a Transportation department advisory committee lays out a scenario in which the Legislature is unable to agree on a way to fund the State Police and lifts the cap. If that were to happen, $1.8 billion in funding would be at risk through 2030.

John O’Brien, communications director for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said Thursday “there is nothing new to report on this issue.” He added that Saylor is still concerned about the burden the fee could place on some municipalities.

In a Friday statement, Saylor called any implication that DePasquale found $4.25 billion “misleading” and noted that, “Since at least the 1960’s, the Motor License Fund has helped fund the State Police.” Like Abbott, Saylor highlighted the General Assembly’s cap on the amount of fund money that can be spent on State Police.

A spokesperson for Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he has been told discussions on the subject have yet to begin.

If PennDOT were able to use gas tax revenues solely for bridge and road repairs, DePasquale estimated the state could bring the number of structurally deficient bridges “close to zero” in the next five years.

While Richards forcefully backed Wolf’s proposed per capita fee, she also called on the federal government to increase funding for transportation infrastructure.

“The State Police need to be funded,” DePasquale said, “and there needs to be a funding solution from the General Assembly … But it should not be coming out of the Motor License Fund.”

In his statement, Saylor noted that, “As a House member, the auditor general voted for many budgets which decreased the state police dollars coming out of the General Fund and increased the state police funding out of the Motor License Fund.

“Instead of seeking publicity for things we already know, it is time that the auditor general focus on investigating things like Medicaid fraud or why the Commonwealth has wasted over a billion dollars on a radio system for the state police that never worked.”

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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