(259) Sunday, March 13, 2016 – Noted columnist and author, Jim Breslin, at 85, is too old to write a sequel to his 1968 novel, “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”
A bunch of thugs under “Crazy” Joe Gallo plot and murder loan shark and gambler Frankie Shots under the orders of family chieftain Joseph Profaci. After all this planning and work, the Gallo mob is denied a share of their victim’s numbers business.
If Breslin were interested in a sequel today, he should consider Pennsylvania government. At least a chapter or two could be devoted to how our leaders now maintain roads and bridges.
Within Pennsylvania’s borders are 22,783 structures that span rivers, creeks, lakes, gullies, streams, tributaries and the like. The Keystone state has the second highest number of structurally deficient bridges, 4,783.
An omnibus bill to finance fixing roads and bridges passed the legislature and was signed into law in 2013 by former Governor Tom Corbett. Only two years into a six-year plan to update transportation facilities, projections of how many projects PennDOT can undertake have fallen by a third or more. More was promised than can be delivered.
Corbett was as “anti-tax” focused as any governor in modern times. Still, he bought into the concept of hiking fees and taxes with all new monies going to maintaining roads and bridges.
There is a longstanding, informal agreement between the two major parties that funding of transportation needs will be adopted on as bi-partisan basis as possible. Both parties are to provide substantial numbers of votes for passage of legislation that fund projects.
So what went wrong?
Enter the small, but powerful Tea Party lawmaker group who sit with Republicans in both chambers. They blocked attempts to use the yearly revenues from the gasoline tax to make payments on bonds. They insisted the entire program would be on a pay-as-you-go basis. They were opposed to the state going farther in debt.
Almost nowhere else is this philosophy prevalent. The idea of bond financing for infrastructure (and buildings and other bricks-and-mortar projects) is that the projects will be paid off by those using and enjoying the improvements.
Typical of Harrisburg, raising monies for transportation kept being moved to the back burner until 2013 when crumbling bridges became a national concern.
Perhaps for this reason, the huge undertaking was underfunded from the get-go. Certainly, the 2013 law hiked gasoline taxes by another 18 cents, giving Pennsylvania the highest such levy (at 54 cents) in the U.S. But lawmakers also left untouched adjustments to vehicle registration fees and drivers’ licenses.
In Harrisburg’s “politics as usual,” higher income was projected at the transportation bill’s introduction. A list of projects was announced that virtually had something for everyone. The final edition of the bill reflected lower tax hikes and other sources relatively untouched. Someone forgot to adjust the list of proposed projects.
The shortcoming has only been made public recently.
PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards delivered the following bad news to a recent legislative budget hearing on transportation, as reported by John Finnerty, state correspondent for CNHI.
The Corbett administration listed 9,522 road and bridge projects worth $30.7 billion as part of its “Decade of Investment” plan. As a result of adjusted projections for income, down to $24.7 billion, the Secretary now says about 2,800 projects will need to be lopped off the list.
Much of this reduction is attributed to an ever increasing sum raided from the transportation accounts and handed over to Pennsylvania State Police to balance its budget.
Gov. Wolf’s 2015-16 budget that has never been adopted, shifted $755 million to PSP and his proposed 2016-17 funding requests an appropriation of $814 million. He wants to fix 1,800 bridges over the next four years. PennDOT needs at least 300 upgrades annually to stay ahead of the deterioration.
The state police assessment is solvable, but not for as long as Republican majorities exist in the legislature.
The law requires PSP to provide police protection in any municipality that does not have its own cops.
The Associated Press reported earlier today that about half of the 2,500 municipalities in the state do not provide their own police protection and, instead, are covered for free by state police. It is a safe bet that everywhere that local governments provide police services, such protection is the largest part of their budget.
The largest abuser of PSP free service is Hempfield Township in Westmoreland County with 43,000 residents and no police. Several sparse rural counties are completely serviced by PSP at no cost. State police are not required to patrol anywhere in Philadelphia and only provide support in a tiny bit of Allegheny County.
Bottom Line: Not surprising, municipalities getting free service from state police enjoy low real estate taxes when compared to communities that provide their own police. Because nearly all the municipalities getting free PSP coverage are rural in nature, Republican lawmakers are protective of this benefit. Democrats, even when they had more legislative power than present, have never mounted a strong effort to eliminate the unfair benefit.