The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

January 25, 2013

Battle lines taking shape over state highways bill

By Marc Levy and Mark Scolforo
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -  The battlefield is beginning to take shape for the upcoming push by Gov. Tom Corbett to enact a major transportation plan, less than two weeks before he will outline the proposal for the state's roads, bridges and mass transit services.

Legislative leaders are starting to talk about what they hope it contains — and what they will not support — in what could end up as one of Corbett's signature first-term initiatives. One sticking point could be a move to link passage of the transportation bill with efforts to privatize state-controlled liquor stores.

The first-term Republican isn't saying much about the details of what he will propose in his Feb. 5 budget address after he apparently scrapped tentative plans to roll it out this week. The governor's office has not explained the delay, but one of Corbett's legislative allies said the plan is undergoing revisions suggested by lawmakers.

"Members threw in some additional ideas to the governor about things," said House Majority Whip Stan Saylor, R-York. "I think the governor is also delaying it to do some additional research."

The centerpiece of the proposal had been an increase in wholesale gas taxes designed to raise $1.9 billion annually, and it is unclear whether that will change. For a significant number of legislators, including many Republicans, any tax increase is a nonstarter, and Corbett campaigned on a no-new-taxes platform in winning the governorship in 2010.

"Prior to enacting any widespread taxes or fee increases, Pennsylvania's various transportation agencies must account for where each dollar of additional revenue is to be spent, and moreover should justify that each dollar of the current $6.8 billion in annual transportation funding is already being spent responsibly," according to a memo distributed to House Republicans by their floor leader, Rep. Mike Turzai of Allegheny County.

Corbett spokeswoman Kelli Roberts said Friday that the Department of Transportation had already achieved considerable cost savings, "to make sure every dollar is maximized."

Saylor said some House Republicans think a vote on Corbett's transportation plan should be delayed until lawmakers in both chambers vote on whether to privatize the state liquor stores. House Republicans last year tried, but failed, to pass legislation to privatize wine and liquor sales.

"I am fine with trying to do issues together," Saylor said. "I think that there are some people who definitely want to see both of them passed, in some cases, the liquor bill first."

That may not sit well with Democrats or Senate Republicans, for whom transportation funding is a top priority.

"This issue needs to get moved forward and not be linked to another issue," Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said Friday. "We don't need Washington-style politics in Harrisburg this legislative session. People want results."

Scarnati said privatizing the liquor stores ranks lower as a priority than concerns over the cost of public employee pensions, crumbling transportation networks, school safety and tight state finances that may demand more spending cuts. Senate Republicans are preparing to introduce their own transportation plan in the coming days.

"Republicans in any transportation vote are going to count on a significant percentage of Democratic votes, at least that's my position," said Philadelphia Rep. Michael McGeehan, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee. "I think any move to tie this to liquor store privatization is going to complicate this immensely."

Always controversial, money for mass transit may be hotly contested.

The House Republican memo said mass transit funding should not be considered along with spending for roads and bridges, in a tone that suggested some tough sledding in the Republican-controlled House unless Corbett can draw in substantial Democratic votes.

Roberts said the governor's approach includes "every mode," including mass transit. Separating out mass transit, she said, "is not an approach we chose to take."

Democratic lawmakers, as well as Senate Republicans, say mass transit must be part of the deal.

"Democrats would not find themselves in league with any bill that left out a large component of transportation," McGeehan said. "It's the lifeblood of big cities."

Saylor said some other issues under consideration in Corbett's transportation plan had been whether to devote a significant portion of the new tax revenue to paying off the Pennsylvania Turnpike's $450 million-a-year obligation to the Transportation Department.

Some lawmakers support phasing in the gas tax increase over several years, as opposed to imposing the full $1.9 billion in the first year, Saylor said, and some support raising money through fee increases.

Other potential changes could be consolidation and privatization of some bus routes, and the use of public-private partnerships to pay for roadwork, Saylor said.