PA Highway Info president supports State Police funding study

Feb 08, 2016, 17:46 ET from Pennsylvania Highway Information Association

HARRISBURG, Pa., Feb. 8, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- The president of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association today urged a legislative committee to request a study to determine the appropriate level of support for State Police operations with revenue from the state's Motor License Fund.

James Van Buren, who also is president of PennStress, a precast concrete supplier, told the House Transportation Committee that an increasing amount of revenue intended for transportation system improvements has been diverted from the Motor License Fund to support the State Police and now totals $755 million, nearly two-thirds of the entire State Police budget.

Van Buren noted that under the Pennsylvania Constitution, revenue from the Motor License Fund may be used only for highway purposes.  While that includes patrolling the highways, he said the amounts being diverted are far greater than the level of resources the agency devotes to highway patrols.

The State Police perform a variety of law enforcement services.  The agency's website lists major case team, patrol services, forensic services, collision analysis and reconstruction, vehicle fraud investigators, Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, Amber Alert activations, liquor control enforcement, polygraph, Fire Marshal, K-9 unit, aviation patrol, drug recognition services, the Special Emergency Response Team, Clandestine Lab Response Team, hazardous device and explosives, equestrian detail and computer crime unit.

"The industry does not take issue with using Motor License Fund revenue to pay for highway patrol operations, which exist for the purpose of highway safety," Van Buren said.  "However, the current state budget diversion of $755 million is about 65 percent of the State Police budget.  We do not believe that 65 percent of State Police resources are devoted to patrolling highways, although no one knows definitively what that proportion might be."

For that reason, Van Buren said, PHIA and its members support a proposed resolution sponsored by Committee Chairs John Taylor and Bill Keller calling for the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to conduct a study of this issue, to determine the appropriate and justifiable level of support for State Police from the Motor License Fund, given the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The diverted amount has increased by an average of 8.8 percent annually since 2002.  At that rate, it will grow to nearly $1 billion per year within the next five years, Van Buren said.

Two years ago, the General Assembly and governor signed into law Act 89, a transportation funding bill that eventually will raise an additional $2.3 billion to repair the transportation system and stem the tide of decades of deterioration.  Act 89 was promoted to the public with the promise of a Decade of Investment that would bring the state's transportation system up an acceptable standards.

However, Van Buren said, PennDOT and local governments are already seeing reductions in the resources they had expected to have to invest in transportation projects.  The $755 million represents about 12 cents per gallon in the price of gasoline.

Consequently, continued growth in the amount of revenue diverted from the Motor License Fund will force transportation advocates back to asking the public for more transportation resources sooner rather than later, he said.

In addition, nearly half of Pennsylvania's 2,561 municipalities receive no police coverage other than from the State Police, and as local government resources become more scarce, many municipalities are considering dismantling their local police departments or withdrawing from regional police coverage and relying on State Police instead, in order to save money. 

"Some news accounts have quoted local elected officials as describing State Police coverage as 'free,' but police coverage isn't free," Van Buren said.  "If you own or drive a car or truck or have a drivers' license, you're paying for it, and if you live in a community that has its own police force or that participates in a regional police force, you're paying twice – for your local police coverage, and also for 'free' State Police coverage in half of the municipalities across Pennsylvania."

Van Buren stressed that neither he nor the construction industry question the need for an adequately funded State Police operation, but the level of support diverted from the Motor License Fund should comply with the Pennsylvania Constitution. 

In addition to the legislative study, Van Buren requested that there be no more increases in money diverted from the Motor License Fund to support State Police until the committee determines the appropriate and justifiable level of support.  The committee is scheduled to consider the resolution later this week.

SOURCE Pennsylvania Highway Information Association