A modest start for state’s transportation plan
By PETER JACKSON
HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s ambitious new multibillion-dollar transportation funding program is off to a modest start.
The final version took shape only days before it was put to a vote and was initially rejected in the House. It was rescued by a handful of members who flipped their votes from “no” on Monday to “yes” on Tuesday, ending months of gridlock and providing momentum that helped carry the legislation to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk before the end of the week.
The package will phase in increases in fuel-tax and motorist fees worth at least $2.3 billion a year to finance overdue repairs and enhancements to the state’s highways, bridges and mass-transit systems.
Proponents recognized that the odds of passing such a major bill are better in the waning weeks of this year than they would be in 2014, when Corbett and most legislators will be running for re-election. Also, the new money is expected to begin funding projects by spring, potentially providing tangible evidence of benefits from the higher levies.
Support for the funding was never in question in the Senate, which had approved a similar proposal in June, but it was stalled in the House for months amid opposition from GOP conservatives who objected to the hefty tax and fee increases.
On Monday, following a lively House debate that pitted the plan’s cost against the potentially deadly consequences of neglecting highway and bridge repairs, the bill was rejected 103-98. A day later, after intense lobbying by Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch and Speaker Sam Smith, the House reversed itself and approved the bill, 104-95.
Overnight, five Republicans and two Democrats had switched their votes from no to yes – more than enough to change their outcome – for reasons both political and personal.
Rep. Seth Grove said he withheld his support until he received assurances that a GOP provision designed to save local governments money by exempting more transportation projects from “prevailing wage” minimum-pay rules would stay in the legislation. Democrats and their allies in organized labor fought unsuccessfully to remove it.
“I wanted a guarantee” and got it, the York County Republican said.
Rep. Mike Sturla, the policy chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said he supported the bill but voted “no” Monday for tactical reasons out of concern that members of the minority party were casting more than their share of “yes” votes.
The Lancaster County lawmaker said he didn’t want to “stick our members with the vote that created a tax increase.”
“It was about trying to make sure that we weren’t just giving away votes,” he said.
In Tuesday’s turnaround vote, 63 Republicans and 41 Democrats supported the bill.
Rep. Stan Saylor, the House GOP majority whip, said the painful memory of his brother’s death in a 1978 car accident played into his decision to flip his vote. He said he reconsidered because opposing the bill amounted to “the easy way out” and that he has a responsibility to support spending that makes highways and bridges in his district safer.
“It’s my highway, it’s my people driving (on) that highway and if they die or are injured … I think I haven’t fulfilled my duties” as an elected official, he said.
Even though Corbett plans to sign the bill into law next week, questions about its more obscure provisions are likely to continue to surface as it is implemented.
Just before the final Senate vote, Allegheny County Democrat Jim Ferlo said $50 million earmarked in the bill for transportation-related accounts controlled by leaders of the Republican Legislature and the GOP administration amounts to “WAMs.”
Shorthand for “walking-around money,” WAMs are typically grants governors or legislative leaders award outside the normal budget process to rank-and-file legislators’ pet projects. Ferlo said he hopes the money will be evenly distributed to capital projects across the state.
“Yes, this bill has WAMs,” he said. “Republicans don’t like to admit it. They refer to it as discretionary spending.”
Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.