As his first piece of legislation, state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, seeks co-sponsors for a bill to reduce the amount of money diverted annually from highway and bridge improvement efforts to the Pennsylvania State Police.
It would speed up the process begun with the 2016-17 state budget to reduce transfers from the Motor License Fund to state police operations, which instead would draw more on funding from the state’s general fund.
“The state police definitely provide an essential role in promoting highway safety, but the ultimate way to improve highway safety is to rebuild our deteriorating highways and bridges,” Pittman said.
As of Tuesday afternoon Pittman had three co-sponsors. He hopes to formally introduce his bill in the next three to four weeks, in time for the Senate’s mid-September return to Harrisburg.
In fiscal 2016-17, funding from the MLF toward state police operations was capped at $801 million, with a schedule to decrease that amount over a 10-year period to $500 million.
That would involve a transfer of about 4 percent or $32 million each year until the cap reaches $500 million in fiscal 2027-28. Pittman would double the transfer to about 8 percent each year or $64 million until fiscal 2023-24.
“My bill does not reduce funding for the state police, but rather shifts the source of the support to the General Fund budget,” Pittman said. “The state police need and deserve the full funding necessary to fulfill their mission.”
The timing of Pittman’s proposal coincides with both good and bad news for state finances.
The good: “As our revenue outlook improves, I believe the timing is now right to accelerate the shift to funding the state police through the general fund,” Pittman said.
The bad, according to the memoranda Pittman is circulating: State and federal departments of transportation have announced across-the-board cuts to projects planned by metropolitan planning organizations, rural planning organizations and PennDOT districts across the state, which in turn will leave many Transportation Improvement Projects or TIPs in limbo.
“Given these reports, I believe it is important we accelerate the phase out to direct MLF proceeds to their intended use,” Pittman said.
According to PennDOT Press Secretary Alexis Campbell, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which covers Indiana, Westmoreland and Armstrong as well as other Pittsburgh-area counties, was allocated $1.577 billion under the current four-year TIP.
Under the proposed TIP beginning in federal fiscal year 2021, the SPC allocation is $1.252 billion.
For the Northwest Rural Planning Commission, which includes Jefferson County, the current allocation is $237.8 million, while the proposed TIP allocation beginning in fiscal 2021 is just under $152 million.
For the Johnstown Municipal Planning Commission, which includes Cambria County, the TIP would fall from just over $69 million to $66.6 million.
Pittman also said the state’s 12-year transportation plan could be further restricted by potential cuts in funding over the next 10 years. He said a recent report on “Threats to Transportation Funding in Pennsylvania” indicated that the commonwealth could lose $6 billion in federal funds due to the insolvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund and an additional $3.6 billion in state funds if a vehicle sales tax transfer is repealed and payments from the state Turnpike Commission are reduced.
“This means we must act now to protect funding for transportation projects,” Pittman said. “The potential loss of state and federal funding would have a severely detrimental impact on PennDOT’s efforts to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges.”
Pittman’s legislation also comes amid a continuing debate over whether municipalities that use state police as their local source of law enforcement should contribute to their upkeep.
Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed that municipalities that use state police for local law enforcement be assessed fees for that service.
Previously, Wolf proposed a per-person fee. This year, he floated a sliding-scale fee, starting at $8 per person for municipalities with 2,000 or fewer residents and rising to $166 per person for municipalities with 20,000 or more residents.
Pittman said the fee question does not relate directly to that of the fund transfers, though the proposal also would provide relief to the Motor License Fund.
If approved by the General Assembly, it could raise $103 million a year. But, Pittman pointed out, the General Assembly has resisted fees first proposed by Gov. Tom Ridge in 1995 and pressed multiple times since then by Ridge and governors Ed Rendell, Tom Corbett and Wolf.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa Jr., D-Pittsburgh, sponsored Senate Bill 741, also known as the “Pennsylvania State Police Municipal Police Services Act,” which was referred on June 10 to the Senate Law and Justice Committee. His bill was co-sponsored by six colleagues.
House Minority Policy Committee Chairman P. Michael Sturla, D-Lancaster, had 37 co-sponsors for House Bill 959, which is similar to Costa’s proposal. It was referred on May 15 to the House Transportation Committee.
Neither has seen action. If such legislation came out of Harrisburg it could affect 29 Indiana County municipalities, with most probably paying that $8 per person fee.
However, White Township could be on the hook for $2,170,826 or $133 per person per year.
Burrell and Center townships each would be assessed $33 per person; Green Township $25 per person; and Armstrong, Cherryhill, Conemaugh, East Wheatfield, Rayne and West Wheatfield townships each would be assessed $17 per person.
Pittman said he expected that Wolf will propose that fee again in his next budget proposal come February.