Governor's budget pushes for aid for schools, college debt

Governor Tom Wolf delivers his 2020-21 budget address to a joint session of the General Assembly in the chamber of the House of Representatives, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. Speaker of the House Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, is behind him to his left, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is at his right.

THE ISSUE

As part of his budget proposal last week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf would assess a fee on all municipalities in order to help fund Pennsylvania State Police. “The municipality’s population, median income and whether it has local police coverage would all be factored in to calculate how much each municipality should pay,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Gillian McGoldrick reported. Across the county, those annual fees would range from 74 cents per person in Lancaster city and Manheim Borough to $18.64 per person in Elizabeth Township, Sadsbury Township and Brecknock Township.

We appreciate that Wolf keeps putting forth proposals to properly fund Pennsylvania State Police.

It’s a broken system. One of many in Harrisburg.

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See if you can follow this logic:

— Currently, about two-thirds of the $1.3 billion state police budget comes from the Motor License Fund.

— The Motor License Fund comes from gasoline taxes, vehicle registration and licensing fees and other revenue. (Pennsylvania’s gas tax of 58.7 cents per gallon is the highest in America.)

— Per the state Constitution, proceeds from the Motor License Fund are to be used for “payment of obligations incurred in the construction and reconstruction of public highways” and “construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges and costs and expenses incident thereto.”

— That word “safety” in the above excerpt is seemingly crucial. It has allowed the Motor License Fund to be essentially commandeered to fund the state police — to the detriment of paying for needed road and bridge projects.

— And those projects, which are the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, are piling up, as drivers well know.

An April 2019 news release from state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale indicated that PennDOT “could be further along in repairing rough highways and fixing 2,829 structurally deficient bridges with the billions of dollars it has been forced to pay to State Police.”

As we said, the system is broken.

The funding situation was exacerbated in recent years when “an ever-growing number of municipalities abandoned the cost of local police departments and began relying on state troopers,” The Caucus’ Mike Wereschagin explained last year. (The Caucus is an LNP Media Group watchdog publication.) State legislators responded by turning to the Motor License Fund for a greater percentage of police funding.

And around it goes.

2019 proposal was better

So, we’re glad that Wolf continues to doggedly pursue solutions to this dilemma.

But here’s the catch: We like his 2019 proposal better than his 2020 proposal.

McGoldrick notes that “Wolf has tried to make state police coverage more equitable in recent years, as 67% of municipalities in the state rely entirely on that force for their local law enforcement.

“(But) his earlier proposals got rejected by lawmakers because they levied heavy fees on municipalities that relied entirely on state police coverage, when all municipalities in the state can use state police coverage when necessary.”

The sliding scale in this year’s proposal would charge all municipalities, but assess the highest per-capita fees on those that rely entirely on state police. Those highest fees would range from $7.40 to $18.64 per capita in Lancaster County.

At the other end of the proposed scale, local municipalities with their own local police force would pay between 74 cents and $4.66 per capita. But even the lowest of those fees can add up for taxpayers, to the total tune of about $43,900 annually for Lancaster city and $38,600 for Manor Township.

At a time when Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace — and this editorial board — want to see Harrisburg make more revenue-raising tools available for strapped cities, we can’t support the idea of asking Lancaster city residents to pay to support state police.

Oddly, state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster city, supports Wolf’s proposal. “If municipalities that do have a police force have to pay a tiny bit of that in order to get the others to pay the lion’s share, I’m OK with that,” he told McGoldrick.

We understand the art of compromise, but $43,900 isn’t a “tiny bit.”

Wolf has tried different approaches with the General Assembly. But that doesn’t mean every proposal is equally fair.

Last year, Wolf’s proposal applied solely to municipalities that relied on full-time state police coverage. Those with their own departments or part-time coverage for state police would not have been assessed a fee.

“The fee would start at $8 per person in municipalities with fewer than 1,000 residents and increase to $125 per person in places with more than 15,000 people,” LNP | LancasterOnline reported last year.

We approved of that approach.

We thought it was the most equitable.

“If a geographical area is to have the privilege of being its own municipality ... then we believe that municipality must take full responsibility for the costs of policing within its borders,” we wrote last year.

Municipalities that rely on state police should pay for those services, we said.

The fees in the 2019 proposal also served as an incentive for municipalities to take responsibility for their own policing. Their reliance on the “free ride” of state police is part of the reason PennDOT is now billions short of what it needs to maintain one of the largest networks of roadways in the U.S.

So consider this a vote for Wolf’s proposal — the 2019 one.