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It's common for states to use gas tax revenue to support law enforcement agencies. But is it a good idea?
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The collapse of a Pittsburgh bridge late last month, which occurred just hours before President Biden arrived in town, not only reinforced the president’s message that the nation needed to upgrade its infrastructure, it also reignited a debate over how Pennsylvania spends its gas tax money.
The taxes motorists pay to fill up ostensibly go toward maintaining the state’s roads and bridges. But that doesn’t mean the money is all going to construction and maintenance. A big chunk of it in Pennsylvania actually goes to pay for state police, something that the construction industry wants to change.
Pennsylvania is an especially blatant example of this. It has one of the highest state fuel taxes in the country, and one of the biggest percentages of “road money” going to pay for law enforcement. But almost every state in the country has similar arrangements to fund police and, despite occasional controversies, that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
Hello, and welcome back to Route Fifty’s Infrastructure Update. I’m Dan Vock. This will be the last weekly edition for a while, but we will continue to bring you the latest infrastructure news in our daily newsletter. Today, we’re going to look at why the diversions have become such a hot political issue in Pennsylvania and why, despite inevitable backlashes, states stick with similar systems.
The January collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh revived a long-running debate over the way Pennsylvania uses road funds. In 2019, then-Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found that the state diverted $4.25 billion in road funds over seven years to pay for state police. The money had been raised through fuel taxes and fees for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.
States use about 9% of their transportation money to spend on law enforcement, but that varies widely by state, according to federal data. Pennsylvania is the eighth highest among the 48 states that specifically set aside transportation money in a separate account. It dedicated 15.9% of its transportation money for law enforcement in 2020.
Delaware, by comparison, used a third of its transportation money on police and safety. Ten states diverted 1% or less for that purpose.
Jeff Davis, a senior fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation and the editor of the Eno Transportation Weekly, said that state funding for law enforcement from transportation has been remarkably stable. It is essentially unchanged since at least 1980, and probably further back.
In fact, Davis noted, states have used motor vehicle-related charges to offset administrative and safety expenses even before they started collecting gas taxes a century ago. They started collecting registration fees in 1899, “and from the beginning, some of that money was used to offset DMV costs,” he said.
That said, Davis said the differences among states in how much they use their gas tax and motor vehicle fees on state police was striking.
“It seems like all states do about the same level of traffic enforcement. It’s not like Pennsylvania has 10 times as many state patrolmen out on the road there” as other states, he said.
But it’s the ongoing funding issues – not the performance of the state police – that has brought the issue to the fore in Pennsylvania recently.
Last week, several groups from the Pennsylvania construction industry asked Gov. Tom Wolf to stop sending transportation money to police.
“It’s time to restore faith in our state budget process by ending the diversion of motorist fees to non-highway purposes and find new ways to fund the Pennsylvania State Police,” they wrote in a letter.
That approach would free up more money for roads, which is especially important now that Biden’s infrastructure proposal has become law. For Pennsylvania to get its full share of money available under the law, it will have to raise another $1 billion to pay its portion of federal matching grants, the contractors and pavers noted. They argued that Pennsylvania should look for ways to pull together the money without raising taxes, especially because Pennsylvania has the third-highest state fuel tax rates in the country.
Pennsylvania state lawmakers in recent years slowed the amount of road money heading to the state police. But they’ve also had trouble keeping up with the increased demands on the state police, which had to take over patrolling in small cities that can no longer afford a police force.
Last year, Wolf called for Pennsylvania to phase out the gas tax and appointed a commission to look at how to do so. The Democratic governor said his state was “relying too much on outdated, unreliable funding methods” to pay for transportation improvements.
The commission proposed many sweeping changes in its report last summer. Its ideas included moving to a mileage-based tax, increasing fees, adding tolls, and, of course, ending diversions of transportation money to fund the state police.
The proposal never gained traction in the Republican-controlled legislature. So when the diversions became an issue again after the bridge collapse, the governor’s office blamed inaction by the GOP lawmakers.
“Throughout this administration, the governor has proposed various ways to address state police funding, none of which have been supported by the Republican-led legislature, nor have they proposed sound funding solutions,” his office said in a statement to a Pittsburgh TV station. “The Republicans continue to block our efforts to address this critical issue.”
That’s it for this week’s edition. The Infrastructure Update newsletter will be on hiatus for a while. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, consider signing up here for Route Fifty Today, our daily newsletter, where you can stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices happening in state and local government nationwide. If you have news tips or feedback, if you want to share your community’s story, or if you just want to say hello, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter at @danvock. Thanks for reading!
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.