CLARIFICATION: The Truth Behind the Gas Tax & PA State Police
The state Auditor General recently released a report in which he identified roughly $4 billion of the state gas tax that has been used to fund the Pennsylvania State Police over the past several years. Many constituents have reached out to me asking for clarification or context for the report. While we can certainly discuss the merits and methods of the various ways the State Police are funded, this report is 1) misleading in the way it presents the historical context and 2) is politically motivated to drive more state tax dollars to rescue the PA Turnpike and mass transit in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
While PA residents have been led to believe the Auditor General’s report is part of a “do-good effort” to rescue our roads and bridges, that is not the case.
History of State Police Funding
On November 6, 1945, Pennsylvania voters approved an amendment to the PA Constitution (part of Article VIII) which established the Motor License Fund (“gas tax”) as a source of funding for the PSP due to their role in providing for safety on public highways. The constitutional protection of the Motor License Fund and the agencies it funds has existed for 74 years.
Responding to the increased reliance on annual gas tax funds going to the State Police, the Legislature passed Act 85 of 2016 to create a schedule for the purpose of restricting PSP’s gas tax appropriation, reducing this amount 4% annually through FY 2026-27. It also establishes a cap on total funds they will receive from the Motor License Fund. As a result, funding for the PSP will further shift to specific line items within the state budget.
The Auditor General’s report did not provide context for State Police funding, nor did it explain to our citizens the true intention of this report. In his budget proposal for this year, Governor Tom Wolf has again proposed a fee structure that would establish a per-capita tax on citizens who live in municipalities that rely solely on the State Police. Many of our municipalities view this as an unfunded mandate, as it would require some townships in the 40th Senate District to raise their taxes by as much as $3 million.
Where are We Today?
While the Governor’s Administration has used the State Police issue to rile up anti-gas tax sentiment in the Commonwealth, the real intention is not to free up gas tax revenue to direct to local roads and bridges, rather, it’s a veiled attempt to drive more tax dollars to the PA Turnpike and to support mass transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Under Governor Ed Rendell’s Administration, he struck a deal where the Turnpike was forced to pay $450 million annually to support mass transit in the cities (wonder why tolls have risen so precipitously?). This began the Turnpike’s ongoing budget woes.
Furthermore, almost 15 years ago I fought to prevent Governor Rendell’s efforts to toll Interstate 80. What was discovered at the time was that the I-80 toll revenue was going to be diverted to rescue the Turnpike, which in turn would ensure the Turnpike monies continued to flow to the city areas.
Now, Governor Wolf’s proposal to tax municipalities who rely on state police coverage is “Round 2” of the I-80 tolling debacle. The revenue he is proposing through the municipal tax is not to shift more gas tax dollars currently funding the State Police to repair our roads and bridges – it is to send more of your tax dollars to the Turnpike and, in turn, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Don’t Be Fooled
It was low-hanging fruit for the Auditor General to criticize the gas tax and pontificate on how it could be used, but he provided no suggestions for the harder question: what other taxes would he suggest increasing to offset the hundreds of millions needed to fund the State Police?
Further, his report “findings” are based on the premise that the State Police should not receive gas tax dollars at all, when the gas tax has comprised the majority of their budget for decades. In fact, while a State Representative, the now-Auditor General voted consistently for budgets that funded the State Police through the gas tax and he voted to toll I-80.
I supported the legislative cost controls that have already been put in place to reduce the PSP reliance on the gas tax (which the Auditor General ignored) and I oppose further unfair efforts to take dollars out of the 40th District to subsidize areas that already receive the lion’s share of state funding in all categories.
If anyone within the current Administration wants to talk true fairness, I welcome the opportunity to discuss equitable school funding and actual school property tax reform – a topic on which they have remained silent.