It took high gas prices to finally lift the blanket of silence that has covered the Minnesota State Patrol's budget problems for some years.
But fuel spending up 54 percent in the recently ended fiscal year is only the freshest of the patrol's fiscal sore spots. And the adjustment made three months ago by Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Weaver -- cancellation of a patrol training class set for next January -- only begins to solve the problem. A new source of funds is the long-term solution.
Right now, the State Patrol is funded primarily by the gas tax. That tax was fixed at 20 cents per gallon in 1988 and hasn't budged since. Inflation has reduced its value, in 1988 dollars, to 14.3 cents.
Just as inflation's pinch stalled needed road and bridge repair and construction in the 1990s, it also squeezed operations at the State Patrol. Troopers' salaries rose with inflation, but spending on equipment and operations did not. The department's budget is premised on $1.17 per gallon gasoline -- a price that has become a fond, fading memory.
As a result, only five places in the state -- the Twin Cities, Mankato, St. Cloud, Rochester and Duluth -- have round-the-clock State Patrol coverage. It has become routine for troopers in other areas to work 8 hours and be on-call for 8 hours more, every working day. Telecommunications improvements that would allow troopers to communicate easily with other law enforcement agents have not been made. Items like laptop computers and radios that can be carried by troopers outside their vehicles are not available everywhere.
Then the situation got worse -- and not just because gas prices went up. Health insurance costs did, too. Highway use and road fatalities are on the increase, and so is the number of stops troopers make. Local peace officers are calling on the patrol more often for help with situations ranging from illegal drug smuggling along the Iowa border to the animal-genetics protest in Minneapolis in July. ...
Minnesota now ranks 45th among the 50 states in per-capita and per-miles-driven spending on its patrol. That statistic puts a new color on (Gov. Jesse) Ventura's recent claim that Minnesota has the best highway law enforcement force in the nation.
If Ventura truly aspires to make Minnesota's patrol the best, he must assure that it is properly funded. It won't do to propose another spartan budget and expect the Legislature to heed the patrol's pleas for more. During the 1990s, legislators showed former Gov. Arne Carlson that if a governor neglects state transportation needs, they would, too.
Ventura need not propose a gas tax increase to do right by the patrol. He should, however, ask the Legislature to make the patrol less dependent on the gas tax. General tax revenues should pay for a much larger share of the patrol's budget. Key legislators in both the Republican and DFL camps have said as much this week. But it won't happen unless the governor takes the lead.
--Star Tribune of Minneapolis
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