The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

February 6, 2013

Lawmakers' reaction to state budget mixed

John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

— HARRISBURG - Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget address included a bold array of strategies intended to confront a transportation funding crisis, provide additional money for education and get the state out of the liquor business.

All three of those moves have aspects that may give some lawmakers pause.

The transportation funding is tied to a move to lift the cap on a tax on the oil company franchise tax. Corbett took care in his address to argue that he is suggesting that the state change the tax rate, he is just lifting the cap. The distinction may be too fine for many.

The move to connect educational funding to liquor privatization is objectionable to some lawmakers.

“It’s going to be a challenging few months,” said Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23 of Lycoming County.

Beyond those hot-button issues though, there is reason for optimism, as lawmakers said that the state government’s budget is in a much more healthy position now than it had been at similar points in Corbett’s first two years in office.

The governor’s strategy of connecting education funding to liquor privatization is “disingenuous,” said Sen. John Wozniak, D-35 of Cambria County.

Under the governor’s liquor privatization plan, $200 million a year from the sale of licenses to operate retail stores selling wine, liquor and beer would be made available to schools for use on school safety, boosting elementary education funding, developing individualized learning plans, and bolstering science, technology, engineering and math programs.

Sen. John Gordner, R-27, of Columbia County, said that the education funding — outside the amount tied to liquor privatization — demonstrates how the strain of austerity is less intense. Corbett has proposed a $90 million boost in basic education funding, $100 million in accountability block grants that many school districts use to fund full-day kindergarten,  and the state has announced that it will not reduce the amount of funding for higher education.

“Last year, we started with a $400 million deficit,” Gordner said. “This year, we are starting $160 million to $170 million to the good.”

Most lawmakers suggested that transportation funding may be the most likely to be addressed, simply because the need to act is so great.

Transportation funding affects everyone, “Whether you’re on a school bus, driving a feed truck or going to work,” said Sen. Elder Vogel, R-47, of Lawrence County.

Corbett noted that the average age of a bridge in Pennsylvania is 51 years while the expected life expectancy of a bridge is more like 30-40 years.

If the state does not take steps to repair some of the 4,774 structurally deficient bridges in the commonwealth, “We’re going to have a bridge collapse and then they’ll hang us all,” Vogel said.

Yaw said that when there are bridge problems or issues with road conditions, constituents might point to the $250 million that is going toward mass transit.

“I can’t say they are wrong,” Yaw said.

The Senate Transportation Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday to begin examining the governor’s transportation plan in detail, Gordner said.