SALEM - A plan to stabilize the state police budget by placing it in the so-called "highway fund" - putting the troopers and the roads they patrol on one balance sheet - passed in a Senate committee Monday.

But influential highway construction groups, arguing that the highway fund is already too short on cash to fix Oregon's crumbling roads, said they'll push to defeat it.

The proposal now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

Because the change requires a constitutional amendment, anything the Legislature approves would be sent to voters in the next general election.

The bill is a necessary piece of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's plan to increase the gas tax by a penny to pay state police salaries, an idea which would also be sent to voters for approval.

The $3 billion highway fund pulls in money from vehicle registration fees and the gas tax. In 1980, voters passed a ballot measure that ended the use of highway revenue for police.

Since then, the police have been part of the general fund, where they've had to compete for dollars with the budgets for education, social services and corrections.

Over the past 20 years, trooper ranks have been cut in half.

"It's been a nightmare for us ever since," said Jim Botwinis, president of the Oregon State Police Officers Association.

Botwinis said Oregon's current ratio of troopers to residents - one for every 10,000 - is worse than any neighboring state. For example, California has one trooper per 5,200 residents.

The latest cut to the state police came in January, after a voter rejected income tax increase prompted the layoff of 129 state police. Forty troopers were added back, but with the state economy still in the tank, police worry the cuts may go deeper.

Highway construction groups say any solution that dips into the highway fund would come at the cost of leaving crumbling bridges and roads in dangerous disrepair.

"At some point, you can't keep running around the track, stealing money from one pot to try and make up money for the next pot," said Gary Conklin, from Associated General Contractors.

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