Dan Hawbaker: State funding processes should be transparent

Having spent a worklife in the highway construction business, I was pleased with the initiative of the General Assembly to pass Act 89, the transportation funding bill of 2013. The act created a sustainable funding mechanism and went a long way toward shoring up our transportation system, improving safety, relieving congestion and putting people back to work.

Polls have shown that Pennsylvanians agree that our infrastructure needs to be maintained and improved to support our economy and our lifestyles. Modest changes to the fee structure and wholesale gas tax is acceptable to achieve this objective. Unfortunately, behind the scenes, a considerable and growing portion of that new funding is being diverted from bridge and highway work for other purposes — primarily for the state police, but also for the Department of Agriculture’s weights and measures activities. This is not a transparent funding process.

In Pennsylvania, the revenue raised by gasoline taxes and license and registration fees is supposed to be dedicated to infrastructure needs and improvement. The state Constitution prohibits those funds from being used for anything other than highway purposes. The definition of ‘highway purposes’ has been stretched and manipulated to provide funding for programs outside the needs of infrastructure.

The state police have an important role to play in society. The people of Pennsylvania understand that. However, an operating budget the magnitude of the policebudget deserves to be part of the open debate of the legislative budget process and not hidden within funds that are intended for our roads, bridges and airports. Today our infrastructure budget is being impacted by $739 million in 2015-16 by this diversion of funds to support other state functions. The state police budget will soon eclipse $1 billion. I am suggesting that it is not good management to have an agency of the state consuming this amount of money when the majority of the funding is not subject to debate and approval in the budget process, particularly, when those funds should be dedicated to better roads and bridges. I do not believe this diversion is what Pennsylvanians mean when they say they agree with modest changes to the fees they pay to support infrastructure.

What does this mean in terms of highway construction? $739 million represents 28 percent of the total construction work that PennDOT solicited for bid in 2014. Certainly state police operations need to be adequately funded, and the agency is under financial pressure as some communities disband their local police forces and opt for “free” state police protection. The question is how should the state police be funded? Should the funding come from the openly debated process of the state’s General Fund or a diversion of funds from the only state source that maintains our roads and bridges? Clearly, I support a process whereby both the General Assembly and the people of our state can understand the amount and impact of funding both our police and our roads.

In the past, a much greater portion of the State Police budget did come from the General Fund, but the portion of General Fund support has dwindled as times got tough. The transportation system has been the victim.

In passing Act 89, Pennsylvania took a bold step to provide funds for an important purpose.

By year 5, Act 89 will raise $2.3 billion per year, and polling shows that 6 in 10 Pennsylvanians believe that was a good idea. What the public did not know is that an increasing proportion of that funding, an additional $70 million, in the proposed budget is being diverted from that purpose.

National polling now shows what we have already recognized in Pennsylvania that people are willing to pay a little more to fix and improve our transportation system, as long as the money is used for that purpose. In order to continue to enjoy such support from the public we owe it to the public to keep the promises we make.