Fall session may revive state roads debate
By MARK SCOLFORO
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – It’s been more than two months since a proposal to raise billions to improve roads, repair bridges and support mass transit stalled amid the flurry of deal making that accompanies the Pennsylvania Legislature’s annual budget debate.
Since then, the Transportation Department announced new weight restrictions on about 1,000 state and local bridges, and the Senate Transportation Committee has held a series of hearings around the state to warn of the dangers of inaction on transportation infrastructure.
Lawmakers will return to the Capitol from their summer break in two weeks, with the prospects of a deal as murky as ever.
A $2.5 billion-a-year plan passed the Senate 45-5, while a $2 billion House proposal got out of committee but has not had a floor vote.
The big question this fall is what will happen in the House, where fiscal conservatives who dominate the Republican majority are determined to avoid tax increases. The House Transportation Committee’s chairman, Dick Hess, died on Friday, adding uncertainty amid the funding debate.
PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch said that major sticking points are the proper level of spending and how much money will be earmarked for mass transit.
“If we’re going to have success on this and get it through both chambers, we’re going to have to iron out those issues,” Schoch said.
House Republicans plan to draft a new approach this fall, although a spokesman would not say how much it will cost.
“The one thing that truly seems to have been missing from this entire transportation funding debate is the effect on the people paying for it,” said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin. “We’re thinking about dealing with the actual and critical needs, not necessarily an industry wish list.”
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said the potential to have tax votes used against them in campaigns worries his members, but it’s a risk they might be willing to take in return for an active role in crafting the bill.
He said Republicans would still have to contribute a share of the votes.
“Voting for taxes, all our members understand they’re going to beat you over the head with it,” Dermody said. “They won the election, they have a responsibility to govern. If they can’t govern, give us a chance.”
Dermody said he has told Republican Gov. Tom Corbett that support from his members is easier to get if their priorities aren’t being ignored.
“If he insists on selling the state stores, that makes it difficult to get votes,” Dermody said. “Then we are not going to be able to put up 70 votes, if that’s what they need. We have interests, too, we have an agenda, too.”
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said this could be the last major transportation funding bill for a decade or more, and he wants it to be a complete package.
“The state can’t afford to take a half-measure now and have the state suffer for the next 10 years (for) our failure to act,” Pileggi said. He said the issue remains his caucus’ top priority.
“We have this need, we have a means to meet this need, and time is of the essence,” Pileggi said.
Schoch said Corbett would sign any bill that would generate at least as much as his own proposal, which would have gradually increased funding, reaching $1.8 billion by the fifth year. Corbett is concerned about a $100 fee for moving violations in the Senate-passed bill, but that has been his only reservation with that proposal, Schoch said.
Both chambers have 21 voting session days scheduled before the end of the year, after which Corbett’s re-election campaign will dominate state politics.
Scolforo covers state government for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He may be reached at email@example.com.