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Wolf’s idea to fund police makes sense

Gov. Tom Wolf’s resurrection of a proposal to tax municipalities that rely solely on state police protection faces a virtually impossible journey, just like other efforts to implement the idea over the past two decades failed.

It is a hot-potato issue from which most lawmakers prefer to distance themselves, even though the proposal makes sense.

In his 2017-18 budget address, the governor urged legislators to assess a $25-per-resident fee on any municipality without local police coverage. He projected that the fee could provide $63 million toward the challenge of plugging an estimated $3 billion state deficit.

The governor rightly argues that many municipalities are large enough and financially capable enough to support a police department of their own, instead of relying on the state police.

Supporters of the fee in communities with local police protection also make the accurate point that they’re paying twice for police service — providing the money for their local department but also paying for state police coverage for communities not wanting to bear such costs locally.

But some of their state taxes would help fund the state police even if all municipalities had local departments.

Nevertheless, arguments are valid that the state police work too much in communities where residents should want to have more quickly accessible police response. The state police can’t be everywhere; sometimes they’re in distant locations making a quick response impossible.

Also, the state police don’t have unlimited manpower, although some people believe otherwise.

Some people harbor unreasonable expectations — that the state police should be available quickly even for petty issues.

What might be lost within some of the debate over what Wolf is proposing — but what shouldn’t be — is the negative impact municipalities without local police protection are having on state highway funds.

Partly due to the costs associated with the tasks state police are expected to perform for communities without local police, the state’s been redirecting to the state police many millions of dollars earmarked initially for highway and bridge projects.

Wolf’s 2017-18 budget plan calls for redirecting $739 million from the road and bridge “money chest” to pay state police bills, and that has negative implications for all who travel this state’s highways — damage and unnecessary wear and tear on vehicles resulting from deteriorated roads, as well as accidents for which substandard roads are responsible.

Roughly half of Pennsylvania’s municipalities rely entirely on state police protection. One problem with the Wolf proposal is how to impose the fee on municipalities that probably should be operating a local police department, while giving a bye to small, rural communities for which a local department might not really make sense.

Imposing the $25-per-person fee on some non-police municipalities, while exempting others, most certainly would spawn cries of selective taxation.

Then there are those who voice the argument that since all state residents pay the commonwealth’s income tax, they’re entitled to state police protection — and that those who opt to have the added level of local police service have no grounds for criticizing those who don’t.

The immediate resistance that Wolf’s proposal generated was predictable, but the governor wasn’t out of bounds in presenting the idea as a financial option for this financially hard-pressed state.

The proposal might be dead on arrival, but it shouldn’t be.

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