The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 17, 2013

Pennsylvania's fortunes take cue from Hartleton

Daily Item

---- — Harrisburg's frantic search for a route around raising taxes took another detour this week when legislators pondered converting the criminal justice system into a tax collection work-around.

Recognizing that uncapping the tax on wholesale energy was too obvious -- and a probable poison pill for economic recovery -- state senators tried to magnetize the idea of massive increases in motor vehicle fees and fines to generate money for roads and bridges.

Initial proposals would jump the price of a driver's license 14 percent and vehicle registration 44 percent. A state charge of $100 would be tacked on speeding tickets and $100-$300 on other moving violations.

Ironically, the notion emerged from the offices of legislative genius on the same day the borough of Hartleton fell under suspicion for allegedly offering snared motorists a choice between speeding tickets or a contribution to the town playground.

Hartleton, population 260 in just less than one square mile of geography, is blessed to have been bisected by Route 45, a popular and frequently traveled highway between Penn State and any number of other Pennsylvania communities with much more substantial populations.

This happenstance of transportation planning has kept Hartleton's chief and four-member police force (one police officer for every 52 citizens) busy enough tolling pass-through motorists to earn the borough a place of honor among known speed traps listed on the Internet.

A choice between a speeding ticket or direct deposit into the playground fund, if true, may have been nothing more devious than better management of office paper flow in Harleton.

Wrenching PennDOT and the Pennsylvania State Police into toll takers is more than a difference of scale.

Fees for licensing and registration and fines for transgressions are meant to introduce order and safety to systems with inherent and obvious risk. The threshold cost for that should be a balance of compliance and deterrence -- reasonable enough to encourage participation, threatening enough to prevent abuse.

State troopers, local police and town magistrates already battle a perception that they work for the Sheriff of Nottingham. (There are no speeding ticket quotas; there are just job performance metrics.)

Driving fines and fees ever higher and merging them into revenue streams essential for long-term debt payments redefines the mission for law enforcement and justice into a subset of the department of revenue.

That merger is designed to insulate political careers, not advance the public good.