The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 13, 2013

House GOP skirts gas-tax hike

By John Finnerty
The Daily Item

— HARRISBURG — Less is more than nothing. That’s the pitch of Republicans who say there is no reason to believe that a $2.5 billion transportation plan, that would effectively give Pennsylvania the highest gasoline tax in the nation, will ever pass the state House.

California collects 43 cents on every gallon of gasoline, the highest rate in the nation. Pennsylvania collects 31.2 cents per gallon. Most analysts project that lifting the cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax will translate into about a 25 cents a gallon increase in the price at the pump.

Combined with existing state gasoline tax, that would mean motorists in Pennsylvania would be paying more than a dime more in gasoline tax than drivers in any other state in the nation.

That’s too much for many House Republicans.

The House finance committee on Tuesday held hearings on two bills intended to provide additional funding for road and bridge repairs without increasing the gasoline tax. Both measures would use the sales tax on vehicles to pay for highway work. That sales tax revenue now goes into the general fund.

In 2014, the state Department of Revenue predicts the Commonwealth will get $1.4 billion in sales tax from vehicle sales. A measure authored by Rep. Brad Roae, R-Cawford County, would begin shifting that money into the Motor License Fund in phases over a decade until it’s all devoted to roads and bridges.

A measure authored by Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland County, would make the same shift, but accomplish it in five years.

“If they had the votes for Senate Bill 1 (the $2.5 billion a year transportation plan), we’d have voted on it already,” Roae said. “Both of these proposals raise less than SB 1, but if SB 1 does not pass, it will not raise anything.”

The measures are just two of the alternatives circulating at the Capitol.  

Another proposal that could soon emerge would generate about $500 million a year to provide enough money for PennDOT to fix its bridges in critical need of repair.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, supports that measure because it provides the state Department of Transportation with enough to fix the state’s crumbling bridges while providing about $100 million a year for mass transit.

The critical-needs bridge repair bill, which has not yet been introduced, would also rely on an increase in the wholesale tax on gasoline. But because the legislation would spend less, its cost would only translate into about a 6 or 7 cents a gallon tax increase, said Turzai’s spokesman Stephen Miskin.

The state has 4,300 structurally deficient bridges. That’s down from the 6,034 structurally-deficient bridges in the state four years ago.

That $400 million a year would allow PennDOT to keep the number of deficient bridges at 4,300 by allowing the department to continue working on the same number of bridges it is now. Without an increase in funding, PennDOT will cut the number of bridges it is working on each year in half — from 500 to 600 to about 250, said Richard Kirkpatrick, PennDOT spokesman.

The critical bridge spending plan would not allow PennDOT to keep “from losing ground on pavement conditions” or allow it to address problems that are contributing to traffic congestion across the state, Kirkpatrick said.

While House Republicans have begun to push alternatives, caucus leaders have continued to negotiate behind-the-scenes to come up with a way to pass Senate Bill 1 or something similar to it.

Much of that effort, of late, has involved linking prevailing wage rules to the transportation spending in a bid to entice more conservatives to support it.

Prevailing wage reform has been championed by chamber groups and Americans for Prosperity.