(Photo: Adam E. Moreira via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Back in 2014, Pennsylvania lawmakers took a tough vote to uncap the state gas tax and fund the Act 89 transportation funding bill.
Act 89 was sold as a solution to address the Commonwealth's massive backlog of transportation infrastructure needs, and put people to work across the state upgrading roads, bridges, and transit.
But until recently, it looked like it could all be for naught, as the state troopers were on track to gobble up the entirety of the funding increase over the next decade. The troopers are funded out of the PennDOT highway fund, and their costs have been growing unsustainably at a 4% rate that threatened to overtake the Act 89 funding increase within 10 years. And the troopers say it's still not enough.
One big reason for the increase was that the number of townships using the state police for their local police coverage (in lieu of paying for a local police department) has been growing. Over half of Pennsylvania municipalities rely fully on the state police for their coverage.
This issue matters for Philadelphia for a few important reasons, and it's all coming to a head in this year's budget debate.
The first reason is straightforward: the more PennDOT money that goes to the state police, the less is left over for the transportation projects Act 89 was supposed to pay for. The state police do answer a lot of calls in Philadelphia, so they are providing a service we need, but the issue is how they're funded. It needs to be moved out of the PennDOT budget, so it's not in direct competition with transportation projects for funding.
The second reason is more nuanced. Because police services are the largest cost center for most municipal budgets, the municipalities who are able to avoid having a local police department are able to keep their local tax bills attractively low for prospective residents. Many rural areas don't have a police department because they genuinely can't afford it, but there are also quite a few wealthy exurban townships who lean on the state police for local coverage, and this has implications for the competitive balance between urban and suburban places.
Here in Philadelphia we have a long-running debate about the extent to which lower suburban and exurban tax rates make the city less competitive at attracting jobs and residents, and the issue is typically framed around the question of how much city taxes should come down to match the tax burden in the collar counties.
But there's also a question of how much the state is essentially underwriting artificially low taxes in suburban and exurban townships by letting some municipalities mooch off the state police who could otherwise afford to hire local law enforcement. Remove the police subsidy, and Philadelphia and other cities start looking like a better deal in relative terms.
The most recent movement on this issue came quietly last summer, when state lawmakers passed a budget rule capping the PennDOT allocation for state police at FY 2016-17 levels, and mandating a 4% reduction each year until the cost is back down to $500 million.
That move set the table for a fight this budget season over how to fund the state troopers. Governor Tom Wolf has proposed assessing a $25-per-person fee on the municipalities who rely on state police for their local policing needs.
As Steve Esack explains, the budget rule combines with the fee proposal to pit the troopers against municipal and state lawmakers who oppose the local fee.
"The idea is to free up roughly $2 billion over 10 years that could be redirected back to roads and bridges," Kirkpatrick said.
But it creates a shortfall on the other end.
If that PennDOT gas money is not replaced, the state police will lose $40 million next year, $105 million the following year and $294 million by 2021-22, according to a five-year economic forecast report done by the Legislature's Independent Fiscal Office.
Many other high-profile issues will likely come to dominate the political conversation this budget season, but this is an underrated one that Philly voters should keep an eye on.