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By Stephen Caruso | Spotlight PA
For at least 50 years, Pennsylvania has used taxes drivers pay at the pump to fund its State Police force.
But lawmakers are hopeful that the main budget bill passed by the divided Pennsylvania General Assembly and recently signed by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro is the first step to ending those transfers, which have diverted $8 billion from road and bridge construction in the past decade alone.
The spending plan gives the 6,600-person law enforcement agency an almost 8% budget bump up to $1.6 billion, including paying for almost 400 new troopers. But where those dollars come from has shifted.
Compared to last year, State Police will receive $125 million less from the state’s Motor License Fund, which is the bank account where the commonwealth deposits billions of dollars in annual gas tax revenue along with other vehicle fees. In turn, the agency will get $239 million more from the state’s General Fund, which is the bank account that receives most state income and sales taxes.
For decades, gas tax transfers have helped pay for State Police at the expense of infrastructure projects, said Jason Wagner, managing director of the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association.
“We totally understand that the State Police need to be funded, but our premise has been that funding the State Police out of Motor License Fund has a trade-off cost — it’s less road and bridge projects, it’s less construction projects,” Wagner said.
This year’s budget is not yet complete.
Shaprio and the legislature still need to finalize budget-enabling legislation known as code bills in order to authorize spending for a number of programs, including public funding for indigent defense.
Language that would set a deadline to stop Motor License Fund transfers to State Police could be contained in a code bill.
In an email, Jason Thompson, spokesperson for state Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), said that “an additional $125 million phase-down is planned each year for the next three years.”
“We would hope and expect it would take no more than five years to get to zero,” Wagner told Spotlight PA. “But we still have to wait and see what the fiscal code language is going to be to fully be confident that is what is going to happen.”
This year, Shapiro and the legislature were able to pull additional money out of the General Fund for State Police because Pennsylvania’s coffers are flush with billions in surplus cash. In the future, they’ll need to find additional revenue, the Shapiro administration acknowledged earlier this year — a potential sticking point.
In 2016, lawmakers capped the transfers with the aim of getting them under $500 million a year by 2026. Pennsylvania has already reached that goal, transferring $495 million in last year’s budget and agreeing to transfer just $370 million in this budget.
Former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf made several proposals to raise additional revenue and end the transfers completely, but the pitches stalled out in the then-GOP-controlled legislature.
In his first budget proposal as governor, Shapiro suggested moving State Police funding entirely out of the General Fund and creating a walled-off account that can be used only for the agency in the future. He argued it would bring consistency and stability for the agency’s needs.
A bipartisan bill that would create the account, known as the Public Safety and Protection Fund, and eliminate gas tax transfers within five years, passed unanimously out of the Democratic-controlled state House Transportation Committee in May. But it hasn’t advanced since then.
The Republican-controlled state Senate passed a bill in February to eliminate the transfers by 2029, but that bill has not advanced in the state House.
Separately, some Republicans expressed skepticism of Shapiro’s proposed off-budget account for State Police, arguing it could make it harder to track the agency’s spending.
“State Police are a core function of government, and I agree we should get them out of the Motor License Fund. I think we’re gonna find consensus around that,” Martin told Spotlight PA in June. “But we want a little more transparency with how things are budgeted, and not create another special fund.”
Language to enable any of these changes could be added to a code bill. Closed-door conversations between top lawmakers and staff are ongoing.
Neither the state House nor Senate is scheduled to return until September.
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