State Highway Patrol Funding and the State Highway Fund
By Kathleen Quinn | Vol . 25, No. 03 / January 2017
Did you know?
- Twenty-five states use state highway fund dollars to pay for the state highway patrol.
- Hawaii does not have a state-level highway patrol; these functions are funded and performed at a county level, generally broken down by island.
- In the past 10 years, 17 states have addressed state highway patrol funding, with 14 looking at alternative or new funding sources.
Determining the funding structure for the state highway patrol is a longstanding issue for state legislatures. There has been renewed interest in this policy area across states as a result of increasing patrol costs and the flattening of growth from existing revenue sources. The issue rests on constitutional and statutory provisions authorizing state highway fund dollars to be used for highway safety, and the role state highway patrols play in safety.
Ensuring highway safety includes not only maintaining the structural integrity of state roadways, but also providing a state police force to patrol, enforce traffic laws, and respond to and investigate motor vehicle accidents. In most states, these responsibilities are split between the department of transportation and the state highway patrol.
Legislators are facing growing costs in all areas of highway safety, including maintenance and patrol. Rising costs in state patrol departments are related to troopers’ retirement benefits, salary competitiveness and retention when compared to wealthy municipal law enforcement departments. In addition, rural municipalities increasingly rely on state patrol services in lieu of local law enforcement.
A report from The Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the largest share of funding for highways comes from states. This information, coupled with the fact that 65 percent of major U.S. roads and bridges are rated in less than good condition, places pressure on state highway funds, prompting lawmakers to look for alternative sources of funding for state patrols.
The state highway patrol is funded differently in each state, varying in level of support from the general fund, special funds, federal funds and the state highway fund. In 25 states, highway patrols are funded by statutorily or constitutionally created state highway funds. The central question for lawmakers in those states is how to distribute resources from this fund, which is reserved for the construction, maintenance and safety of the state highway system.
State highway funds usually consists of monies from a number of revenue sources; however, a majority of the money comes from the state’s motor fuels tax and federal funds. The motor fuel excise tax rate varies by state and is collected as a fixed amount of cents on the gallon. Due to inflation over time and vehicles becoming more fuel efficient, the revenue generated by the tax has flattened. Raising the state gas tax rate is no longer politically viable in most states; therefore, state legislators have begun to decide how to split the limited resources between the state patrol and transportation department.
State actions to redirect the use of state highway funds supporting the state patrol began as early as 1980 in Oregon—when Ballot Measure No. 1 was enacted to limit the state’s highway fund expenditures “solely to highways, including rest areas, but not policing.” In 2008, a legislative committee reported to the Maine Legislature on the appropriate level of state police funding from the state highway fund. The committee recommended increasing the share of general fund dollars to support the Maine State Police after determining that not all of its work was highway-related. A caveat of the report, however, was the lack of reliable data available on the level of expenditures specifically related to highway safety. Many states face this same challenge when trying to determine the appropriate level of funding for the state patrol from their state highway fund.
In 2015 and 2016, states continued to explore and enact alternative funding measures for their state patrols. Five states—Louisiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Texas and Vermont—enacted legislation to shift authorized funding away from the state highway fund to the general fund. Additionally, Washington, Maine and Georgia addressed recruitment and retention by offering salary increases for state troopers, ranging from 5 percent in Washington to 20 percent in Georgia. Washington financed its salary increase by expanding the portion of the vehicle license fee that goes toward funding the state patrol.
Finally, Pennsylvania, adopted a resolution in 2016 that directs the state’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to review the justifiable level of state highway fund dollars used to support the Pennsylvania State Police. The committee will report to the legislature during its 2017 session.
As the costs for providing highway safety increase in an already restrictive budget environment, it is likely that states will continue to evaluate how best to fund these programs.