Pennsylvania state lawmakers signaled Tuesday that they will move forward with two of Gov. Tom Corbett’s top priorities, although serious questions remain about both while lagging state tax collections could endanger a substantial business tax cut he is seeking.
The Senate Transportation Committee solidly approved a $2.5 billion transportation bill, underwritten primarily by an increase in a wholesale gas tax that is expected to be passed on to drivers at the pump. The committee vote, 13-1, brought together urban Democrats and conservative mid-state Republicans in support of a bill being touted as a key public safety initiative with the potential to boost hiring.
The bill includes the about $600 million in funding for the Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway Project, said state Sen. John Gordner, R-27 of Berwick.
"This is step one," he said.
Also Tuesday, key Senate and House Republicans planned to appear with Corbett to announce they’ll introduce legislation with his proposed changes to the state’s public employee pension systems, another priority for the governor.
Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, called the transportation funding bill perhaps the state’s most important legislation in several years.
“Four years ago, Gov. Rendell drove a bus through my district and announced at every stop in the 41st District that I have the worst roads and bridges per capita of any other senatorial district in the state of Pennsylvania,” White told the packed committee hearing room. “I was with him then and ... in my area, the effect is going to be just huge.”
After two years of prodding by lawmakers, Corbett’s newfound support for raising taxes to support transportation earned him a backhanded compliment Tuesday from Sen. John Wozniak, the transportation committee’s ranking Democrat. Wozniak, D-Cambria, noted that Corbett as a candidate in 2010 had signed a pledge from a Washington, D.C.-based group to oppose any tax increase.
“I know that may have been a very difficult decision because he’s a man of honor and to sit there and shift his allegiance to Pennsylvania ... was a very, very large step,” Wozniak said.
Still, the Senate’s transportation bill is larger than what Corbett initially sought, and House Republican leaders are cool to its gas tax increase.
Wozniak and committee Chairman John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, acknowledged that voting for such a large tax increase will be difficult for many lawmakers and that the bill may need changes to get it through both chambers.
The only “no” vote was cast by Democrat Richard Kasunic, who said he would not support a tax increase partly because a key highway project in his southwestern Pennsylvania district, the five-mile expansion of Route 219 to the Maryland border, is not in the Department of Transportation’s plans.
The moves come as the Republican-controlled Legislature scrambles to wrap up work on a budget and Corbett’s major priorities by July 1.
However, Corbett’s proposed pension changes are meeting stiff resistance from lawmakers. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said his chamber may focus on paring benefits for new public employees, amid questions over whether Corbett’s proposed changes for current employees are constitutional.
Also, lagging tax collections mean Corbett’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year is unbalanced by hundreds of millions of dollars. That could sink the $360 million business tax cut he wants.