By Ashley Wislock
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — Two local lawmakers joined forces to tout two of the three issues which remain the focus of Gov. Tom Corbett, heading into the end of 2013 and his re-election bid next year.
State Rep. Fred Keller, R-85 of Kreamer, and state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23 of Wiliamsport, spoke at a Legislative Breakfast, hosted by the Greater Susquehanna Valley and Central PA Chambers of Commerce Friday morning in Lewisburg. Yaw commented on the need to pass a transportation funding bill, while Keller addressed the need for pension reform.
Earlier this year, Corbett announced his three legislative priorities were: boosting funding for the state’s crumbling highways, rusting bridges and cash-strapped mass transit systems; overhauling the state’s two biggest public employee pension systems to cut long-term costs; and privatizing the (state-controlled wine and liquor store system while liberalizing the state’s beer laws.
But state legislators failed to finalize any bills related to these topics before the July 1 budget deadline, as disagreements arose regarding funding and priority.
Yaw and Keller said they realized that taxes and fees may go up to fund the fixes, but that it’s necessary to avoid bigger problems in the future.
“Sometimes you have to govern and make tough decisions,” Yaw said.
Transportation remain the Senate’s “No. 1 priority,” Yaw said, calling the Senate’s May transportation bills, “one of the most bipartisan bills we’ve ever had.”
The majority of the governor’s proposed $1.8 billion transportation bill will be going toward projects and repairs involving the state’s bridge and road, which Yaw said cost Pennsylvanians $9.4 billion per year due to poor conditions, but some will also go toward mass transit programs.
The majority of funding for the bill will be coming from raising the Oil Company Franchise Tax, which will raise gas prices, Yaw said.
“If we want the convenience and roads we have, we have to pay for them,” he said. “I’m very up front about it: will it increase gas prices? Probably.”
However, that may be easier said than done in the House, where many Congressman have taken no-tax-increase pledges, Keller said.
“We knew from the beginning that we’re not going to get a tax increase out of the House,” he said. “It’s not going to be a $2.5 billion bill (like the Senate passed in May). Will the governor’s plan be passed? I’m hopeful.”
The Central Susquehanna Valley Thruway project, touted by local lawmakers this spring as a cornerstone project of the governor’s transportation package, could still happen with the passage of a funding package, Yaw said.
“It’s only been in the works for 40 years,” he said. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Keller was equally as frank when discussing the state’s employee pension system, which is $47 billion underfunded.
According to Keller, the root of the problem is the four-fold: school districts and the Commonwealth failed to pay their shares; the stock market’s downturn; a change in the pension multiplier; and the structure of the system itself.
If unfixed, the pension system could eat up the state’s general fund and cause greater funding problems on a statewide scale.
“This is a problem for all Pennsylvanians,” he said.
However, Keller emphasized that the situation is not “gloom and doom,” and can be righted.
“We’re having a dialogue for the first time in a long time,” he said. “It’s time to put out differences aside and show our children we can work together.”