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Lawmakers plan hearing on millions diverted from PennDOT to state police

| Friday, Feb. 5, 2016, 10:48 p.m.
A sign marks the location of the barracks for the Pennsylvania State Police in Blooming Grove Township, Pa.

Most of the budget for the Pennsylvania State Police comes from a pot of money meant for road and bridge projects that has collected $4 billion in gasoline tax revenue.

But since 1990, lawmakers have tapped the fund to support the state police, funding the agency with money that, under the state constitution, would otherwise go to PennDOT for road and bridge projects.

“Both of those mission-critical activities are fighting for the same pot of money,” said Eric Madden, executive vice president for the American Council of Engineering Companies of Pennsylvania.

The concern isn't the state police, Madden said, but the source of its budget.

“What they have to do, the resources they have are probably not enough,” Madden said. “The problem is when you take it out of the motor license fund. We both have missions of safety and security of the traveling public.”

PennDOT data show the motor license fund was projected to bring in $4.37 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year. Nearly 17 percent of that amount, about $739.3 million, is budgeted for state police, according to PennDOT figures, about $63 million more than in the prior year, and nearly four times what it was in 1990.

“If you look at the trend, in about five years' time, we will hit close to $1 billion,” Madden said.

The state constitution allows the motor license fund to be used “solely for construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of and safety on public highways and bridges.” The transfer was initially designed to make up for Pennsylvania State Police costs in patrolling the state highway system, starting at $190 million in 1990.

Last year, the transfer made up about 65 percent of the state police budget.

On Monday, the House Transportation Committee will conduct a hearing about the fund and its uses. Chairman John Taylor, R-Philadelphia, sponsored a resolution to require a study on the costs of patrolling state highways.

“Certainly, PSP is a major component to highway safety with their patrols, but it remains to be seen if that amounts to two-thirds of what they do overall,” Taylor said in a co-sponsor memo.

The Keystone Funding Transportation Coalition, a group of 59 transportation-related advocates, supports Taylor's resolution.

A state police spokesman, Trooper Adam Reed, said the agency's responsibilities are linked to the source of funding because highway safety is “a key part of the state police's mission.”

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, who is endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association in his primary bid for attorney general, spoke in favor of a dedicated funding source at his committee's hearing Monday.

Rafferty said the state places more duties on the state police than ever before, including homeland security and crime lab responsibilities. The agency patrols about 67 percent of the state's municipalities that do not have full-time police departments.

The agency has 4,719 sworn members and 1,850 civilian employees.

“There has to be some kind of dedicated source of funding for the state police,” Rafferty said. “I don't want to hear, ‘We'll put it in the budget.' We've all seen what happens to the budget.”

With a Republican-controlled legislature and a Democrat in the governor's mansion who could not agree on spending, the state went without a budget for fiscal 2015-16 until December, when Gov. Tom Wolf signed a budget that lawmakers passed but vetoed line items totaling about $8 billion.

Budgets are due by law July 1, and Wolf is scheduled to present his budget proposal for 2016-17 to lawmakers Tuesday.

PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said she and state police Commissioner Tyree Blocker are discussing potential funding sources that wouldn't jeopardize the transportation funding ensured by Act 89, passed in the fall of 2013 to deal with highway and bridge construction.

“It may take multiple actions to get at this,” Richards said. “I do think there are solutions that will allow PennDOT to carry out the intent of Act 89, as well as the Pennsylvania State Police to carry out their public safety function.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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