By Marc Levy and Mark Scolforo
The Associated Press
HARRISBURG — A rare meeting of top Republican and Democratic legislative leaders created new hope for passage of a bill to fund transportation projects in Pennsylvania, negotiators said Tuesday as a soft deadline this week for movement of a bill was replaced by a November target date.
Five of the six leaders of both parties in the House and Senate met Monday in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, looking for a bipartisan agreement on what is the most closely watched issue before the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
“I’m more optimistic,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny. “I mean, we’re talking and working together.”
Senate Republican leaders called the meeting to try to keep talks alive as the fall session ticks away and to ensure that any measure that is advanced by the more conservative House will be acceptable to senators, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said.
“We’ve allowed the House to have conversations to get to 102 votes and we haven’t interfered with those conversations,” Scarnati said. “But we want to be sure that whatever happens in the House will get a warm reception in the Senate.”
Setting aside Wednesday as a deadline to vote buys time for what is a top priority of Gov. Tom Corbett, major business groups and labor unions. After Wednesday, the Legislature’s next session day is Nov. 12.
In June, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill to ramp up transportation spending $2.5 billion a year by raising taxes, fees and fines on motorists. However, since then, House Republican leaders have struggled to find substantial GOP support for a similar measure, unless it rolls back union-supported wage requirements on transportation projects.
House Speaker Sam Smith, who is leading House negotiations, said he has not changed his support for changing the state’s prevailing wage rules, and that changes are necessary to generate sufficient support within House Republican ranks.
“If that’s not a part of it, then I’m not a part of it,” said Smith, R-Jefferson.
However, House Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D-Clinton, said Democrats will not be part of a deal that results in changes to the state’s prevailing wage law, which sets pay rates on public works projects.
Labor unions are split over whether to support any change in prevailing wage laws, and Scarnati said it will be harder to win votes from Democrats if labor unions are not unified in favor of a change.
Dave Thomas, an aide to Republican House Speaker Sam Smith, said the new plan is to work on a proposal that would be a mixture of the $2.5 billion-a-year bill that passed the state Senate in June and a less costly approach under consideration in the House.
On the spending side, Smith said he is considering a roughly $2.3 billion plan that raises a wholesale gas tax but removes a 12 cent-per-gallon tax paid at the pump. The tax and fee increases would be phased-in over several years, Smith said.
The legislation would boost the state’s spending on Pennsylvania’s transportation systems almost 50 percent while making the state’s fuel tax rates one of the nation’s highest.