If Wolf wants a win on his State Police fee, he has to change tactics. This is how | Mark O’Keefe

September 17, 2019 6:30 am

Will Gov. Tom Wolf try again this fall to charge a fee to municipalities that solely rely on the Pennsylvania State Police for their protection?

If he does, he’ll have to change his tactics.

Last year, the Democratic governor unsuccessfully tried to get the Legislature to buy into charging municipalities a per-capita fee for state police coverage. It never came to a vote.

In his 2019-20 spending plan, Wolf changed his approach, proposing a sliding scale, charging municipalities between $8 and $166 per-capita, the Capital-Star’s Sarah Anne Hughes reported, raising nearly $104 million. That plan, like its predecessor, has failed to garner much traction.

The first problem is one of numbers: About 1,291 of Pennsylvania’s more than 2,500 municipalities rely solely on the state police for their law enforcement coverage. Another 419 rely on the state force for part-time coverage and weren’t going to be charged by Wolf, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The second is a political one: A majority of those municipalities that rely solely on state police are located in rural parts of the state, which means they’re represented by Republican lawmakers who aren’t interested in changing the status quo. With the GOP in charge of both chambers of the General Assembly, that’s a nearly impossible bar to cross.

In a 2017 op-ed for the Sharon Herald in Mercer County, state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, described the fee as “a form of double taxation on predominantly rural communities.”

“Every Pennsylvanian pays for state police coverage through state income and sales taxes, driver licensing fees, gas taxes, fines and other levies paid by citizens in urban and rural areas alike,” Martin wrote. “Most communities that carry a heavier tax burden in order to fund their own local police force do so because they choose to, not because they are forced to.”

That doesn’t change the fact that Wolf’s plan has merit, and that it would be good for the state overall.

First, as Wolf has noted, it’s a question of fairness.

Wolf has pointed out it’s simply not fair that residents who do the right thing and pay for their own police forces end up paying more in municipal property taxes than residents who sit back and rely solely on the state police.

But the other even more important reason for the change is that money that was supposed to be used to fix the state’s highways and bridges is being diverted to the state police in part so they can patrol municipalities which refuse to pay for their own police.

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Earlier this year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said a PennDOT audit showed that, over the last six years, $4.25 billion has been diverted from the dedicated Motor License Fund to the Pennsylvania State Police, PennLive reported.

He noted the money could have been used for various highway projects, including 2,828 structurally deficient state-owned bridges

Of the 9,001 projects that were planned to be completed by 2017, PennDOT had finished only 2,412 of them or 27 percent, DePasquale, said according to PennLive.

Another major factor is the rising costs for state police — that cost was outlined in a 2018 report by former Rep. Joe Markosek, of Allegheny County, then the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The report concluded, among other things, that the annual salary for a typical member of the trooper’s union, based on fiscal 2016-17 data, was $90,612, an annual increase of 3.18 percent since fiscal 2006-07.

Healthcare costs alone increased 50.93 percent between fiscal 2006-07 and 2016-17; while retirement costs rose 17 percent a year during the same time period, the analysis by Markosek’s office found. Health care benefits of troopers, including retirees, are paid 100 percent by state taxpayers.

Also boosting costs is a program allowing troopers to retire with full health benefits after 20 years of service. This means troopers may, comparatively, spend many years in retirement with state-paid health benefits.

No one’s calling for any cutbacks to salaries or health benefits for troopers. After all, they put their lives on the line everyday for residents of the commonwealth. However, it’s reasonable to wonder if sending troopers to rural areas where they have to respond to all sorts of minor crimes is the best use of their time and our money.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for municipalities in these areas to form regional police departments where they can spread the costs around to make it affordable for everyone?

Let the regional police or local police handle day-to-day, routine crimes and bring in the state police for major crimes such as homicides, sexual assaults and drug busts.

So, can anything be done to change the status quo?

Well, this is where Wolf has to change his tactics. Instead of just proposing a plan which is headed nowhere, Wolf should start working with GOP lawmakers in places like Allegheny, Beaver, Bucks, Delaware, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Montgomery, Northampton and York counties where state police cover less than 20 percent of the population, according to the Associated Press.

Imagine how many roads and bridges could have been fixed in those places instead of going to pay for state police in other places.

The other possibility would be for Wolf to call out legislators who represent both types of municipalities. Many of these lawmakers zealously protect residents who rely solely on state police but do nothing to help residents who pay for their own police protection.

This nonsense has to stop. Lawmakers must represent the interests of all their constituents not just those of a select few

In the end, Wolf will have to get his hands dirty and fight tooth-and- nail with Republicans over this issue. There would have to be some give and take and compromises on both sides. But it could produce results.

Of course, this would be a major change for Wolf, who has tried to stay above the fray in day-to-day politics,  but it’s something he’ll have to do if he’s serious about solving this problem.

If he’s not serious, Wolf can keep sending proposals to the Legislature which have absolutely no chance of ever becoming law.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former Editorial Page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly. 

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Mark O'Keefe
Mark O'Keefe

Opinion contributor Mark O'Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa.,  is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page.