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Report: Pennsylvania State Police ‘overfunded’ by $222M last year

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(file photo) - Pennsylvania State Police respond to an incident involving a gunman near Brownsville on December 17, 2012. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

Pennsylvania State Police received hundreds of millions of dollars last fiscal year from the Motor License Fund that it shouldn’t have, according to a new legislative report.

The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee’s report, released this week, determined the $755 million that state police received in 2015-16 from the Motor License Fund to cover highway safety expenses was $222.2 million too much, based on the committee’s calculation of “appropriate and justifiable” expenditures.

The report, seen as a boost to Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to charge a $25-per-resident fee to municipalities relying solely on troopers for police service, comes at a time state police officials tell the Tribune-Review they cannot say which municipalities they respond to most often.

The topic of charging municipalities without their own police departments for continued state police coverage will be the focus of a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing Monday at the University of Pittsburgh.

State police were “overfunded” from the Motor License Fund because of increased costs for covering municipalities that don’t have local police coverage, the Democratic policy committee said.

The Motor License Fund has become a convenient way to balance a budget, and the report provides a path to roll back reliance on it and “stop the hemorrhaging” of tax funds collected for roads and bridges, said Rep. John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

The extra $222.2 million from the Motor License Fund, a user tax- and fee-funded account tapped for highway maintenance and safety, “would have been sufficient to resurface about 1,111 lane miles of roadway or design, replace and maintain 138 bridges for the next 25 years,” the report stated.

“It’s really not about the state police’s budget and what they need and why they need it,” Taylor said. “It’s about what should appropriately be coming out of the Motor License Fund.”

Funding from the Motor License Fund to state police increased from $368 million in fiscal year 2004-05 to $802 million in 2016-17. The current budget also capped Motor License Fund transfers to state police, which could have exceeded $1 billion within five years, according to the Pennsylvania State Transportation Advisory Committee.

“We’re trying to wean off that money and replace it with something else,” said Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKees­port, an LBFC committee member.

Wolf proposed charging the 1,281 municipalities across the state that have no local police force and rely instead on state police coverage. Those municipalities represent 20 percent of the state’s population, according to the Wolf administration.

State police estimated almost half its roughly $1 billion budget is spent providing coverage to municipalities with no local police.

In 2015-16, the year examined in the report, state police collected $755 million from the Motor License Fund and $259 million from the General Fund.

Revenue for the Motor License Fund is generated through liquid fuels taxes and license and registration fees. The fund is tapped for construction, maintenance and “the repair of and safety on public highways and bridges and costs and expenses incident thereto,” according to the state constitution, which does not define highway safety costs.

The committee report, however, defined it as the cost of patrolling public highways, roads, streets and bridges, as well as preventing and responding to accidents, enforcing traffic violations and related overhead costs.

The committee determined that slightly more than half of a patrol trooper’s time was dedicated to “proactive patrols,” such as time spent patrolling streets or looking for speeders. The other half went toward “obligated” functions, like responding to an incident and filing related paperwork.

The committee calculated that the time troopers spend performing highway safety functions meant state police last fiscal year should have received $532.8 million from the Motor License Fund.

The state police department needs to be adequately funded so that it can maintain staffing levels, and Wolf’s per-resident fee “could serve as an alternative funding source to the Motor License Fund,” said Ryan Tarkowski, state police spokesman.

“We look forward to continuing the dialogue with the governor and members of the general assembly as they develop the budget,” Tarkowski said.

The Tribune-Review filed a Right-to-Know law request for the number and type of incidents state police responded to in 2016 for 25 municipalities in Westmoreland County that have no local police force and rely on state police for coverage. After a search of all departmental databases accessible to a Right-to-Know officer, state police could not find any records containing the information.

Kevin Zwick is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2856 or [email protected].

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