As Pa. budget talks progress, Wolf renews request for new state police fee

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, who is sponsoring his chamber's version of the police fee bill, speaks at a press conference on the issue. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, who is sponsoring his chamber's version of the police fee bill, speaks at a press conference on the issue. (Katie Meyer/WITF)

Despite a GOP majority skeptical of new taxes and spending, Governor Tom Wolf and other Democrats are trying to wedge a few of their priorities into the state budget.

Their latest push involves a fee for municipalities that completely rely on state police for law enforcement.

The issue is wrapped up in Pennsylvania’s convoluted transportation funding scheme. For years, some money from the commonwealth’s Motor License Fund — which is intended for roads and bridges — helps pay for state police coverage of municipalities that lack their own police force.

Money in the fund primarily comes from gas tax revenue and other fees on drivers.

The rationale, at one time, was that it was appropriate to divert Motor License money because police spend a lot of time on state roads.

These days, lawmakers broadly agree the practice should be dialed back. In recent years they have lowered the amount of money police get from the fund. But they disagree about how to replace it.

Democrats held a press conference Tuesday to restate their support for a bill that would charge municipalities for state police services. Wolf has included various forms of the plan in two of his budget pitches to the legislature.

In this iteration, the smallest municipalities would pay $8 per capita, and the amount would increase on a sliding scale. At the higher end, communities with more than 20,000 residents would pay $166 per capita. About half the commonwealth’s municipalities and 20 percent of its population would be affected. Wolf projects the fee would put about $100 million back toward roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs.

“I wish I could be the bearer of really good news here,” he said. “But I’m not. This is something that we’re going to have to pay for. And if we don’t pay for it, we’re not going to get what we deserve as Pennsylvanians in terms of our infrastructure, and police protection.”

Democrat Mike Sturla, the Lancaster County Representative sponsoring the House version of the bill, estimated that about $600 million is diverted annually to pay for state police to cover municipalities that don’t have their own forces.

His proposal would recapture about a sixth of that money. Sturla called the fee “a bargain by any stretch of the word.”

“You know,” he added, “a lot of people often decry welfare recipients. We’ve got $600 million of welfare recipients here.”

Republicans in both chambers have declined to say whether the fee proposal will become part of budget negotiations.

Support for the fee tends to vary by region. An analysis by PA Post showed that in some legislative districts, more than 40 percent of municipalities rely on state police coverage. By and large, the lawmakers that represent them firmly oppose the fee.

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