Figure out the source for state police fund money first

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (AP)

The idea of a dedicated fund to support the state police is a perfect illustration of Pennsylvania’s ongoing governmental challenges.

Gov. Josh Shapiro wants to pay the annual bill for the agency — about $1.4 billion — by replacing the $500 million or so that comes from the Motor License Fund with a new Public Safety and Protection Fund.

The reason for that is understandable. The Motor License Fund is filled by money from vehicle registrations, license fees and some of the highest gas taxes in the country.

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro wants to create a steady funding stream for Pennsylvania State Police.

MORE:Dedicated funding will help ensure enough state police troopers to keep Pa. safe

MORE:Shapiro’s proposed Pa. State Police fund saves road dollars but raises accountability concerns

The purpose of taking driving-related money is to support driving-related needs. People naturally expect that to be the maintenance of existing roads and bridges and construction of new ones. The state’s infrastructure needs work, as the 2022 collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge showed.

Instead, about a sixth of the money generated goes to law enforcement. Finding a way to fix that is smart.

But nothing happens in Harrisburg without becoming a partisan issue, as a Spotlight PA story details. Democrats would like the laws built around the account to include collection of racial information from traffic stops, something the state police stopped doing between 2012 and 2021.

Republicans, meanwhile, think a fund takes away from the Legislature’s role of controlling purse strings. There’s a valid point there, but it is one blunted by the fact there are more than 150 such funds that do exactly what the state police fund would do — take dedicated money and use it for a dedicated purpose.

The real question about the fund should be less about whether it would cut into one side’s authority or if it could be used to push the other side’s agenda. It needs to be about where it would get money.

Shapiro wants to ask for $1 billion from vehicle sales tax as well as taxes on smoking products — both tobacco and vaping — and liquor. There could be $400 million in seed money from the Motor License Fund. There are no details about permanent income streams.

And here is where we hit the problem.

Harrisburg’s leaders — executive and lawmakers alike — always have reasons they like a plan or are opposed to it before anyone has fleshed out the facts of it all.

It isn’t that a dedicated fund is a bad idea. It might well be the best way to pay for police. But how can that be judged before locating the money? Would a bank lend you money for a mortgage based on the fact you have a bank account to write the checks but without knowing you have a job to provide the cash? Unlikely.

Determining the source of the money is critical, not just for immediate reasons but for the long term. If you want proof of how much that future impact matters, remember that we are just a few months from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission announcing the annual increase in rates, something lawmakers have locked us into through 2050.

— From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (AP).