Push by Corbett, Rendell and others for House to vote for transportation bill fails

HARRISBURG — Despite a bipartisan push from Gov. Tom Corbett and former Gov. Ed Rendell, the House narrowly defeated a major transportation funding package late Monday night in a 103-98 vote that followed several hours of debate.

When the amendment was reconsidered again minutes later, it lost by an even bigger margin, 112-89.

This week was widely viewed as make or break for the legislation in the House, with the Legislature having only a handful of session days left in the calendar year.

The legislation’s fate going forward was unclear.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to do tomorrow,” said House Speaker Sam Smith, speaking to reporters after the defeat.

Secretary of Transportation Barry Schoch, who had pushed for months to get a bill on the governor’s desk, also expressed uncertainty late Monday.

“I don’t know what else we can do, frankly,” he said.

Without passage of a transportation package, there will be service cuts for the Port Authority and more weight-restricted bridges statewide, he said.

The transportation issue is a major legislative priority for Mr. Corbett, who at a news conference Monday afternoon pounded on a podium and implored the House to take action on a proposed amendment. He was flanked by numerous lawmakers, Mr. Schoch, transit advocates, men and women wearing fluorescent construction vests, and several Democratic heavy-hitters such as Mr. Rendell, who tried to paint the issue as bipartisan.

“We either do this now, or we pay more and more and more” to repair aging infrastructure, Mr. Corbett said, standing at a podium with chunks of concrete from dilapidated bridges.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, both Democrats, also called on the House to pass the bill.

After the amendment’s defeat late Monday, Mr. Fitzgerald, in the hallway of the Capitol said, “We’re still working on it.”

The amendment the House voted down would have provided $2.3 billion per year by 2017-18 for the state’s transportation system, including roads, bridges and mass transit; it was similar to a $2.5 billion annual funding package passed by the state Senate earlier this year.

One of the more controversial parts of the amendment contained changes to the state’s prevailing wage laws, which require union-scale wages on public projects. The amendment would have changed the current threshold of $25,000 in work triggering a prevailing wage requirement to $100,000 starting in 2014. The threshold hasn’t changed since 1961.

“For that reason [the inclusion of prevailing wage], it won’t get my vote,” said Rep. Mary Jo Daley D-Montgomery, speaking on the House floor Monday night. She called the inclusion of that provision “an attack on working families.”

Another amendment that would have provided the same transportation funding without the prevailing wage changes did not come up for a vote in the Republican-majority House; it’s not clear if that amendment could be called up today.

Like the bill passed by the Senate earlier this year, the amendment that failed in the House would have raised revenue by removing a cap on the oil company franchise tax charged at the wholesale level, a move expected to have been passed along to consumers.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette calculation estimated the cost of the Senate bill would be about $3 per week for an average driver, depending on gasoline prices and how much of wholesalers’ added expenses are passed on to consumers.

Of the $2.3 billion to $2.4 billion raised by the amendment by the fifth year, about $1.3 billion would have been devoted to state roads and bridges and about $480 million to $495 million would have gone to public transit. The remainder of the money would have gone to local governments for road maintenance, Pennsylvania Turnpike projects, a multimodal fund and repair of dirt and gravel roads.

The mass transit portion of the bill was lambasted by a number of Republicans and rural representatives, such as Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, who urged a “no” vote. “I have a lot of dirt roads in my district. I live on a dirt road … it’s not right that people who live out in the country have to pay a higher gasoline tax to subsidize mass transit.”

Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said the bill represented a good compromise between what both sides wanted.

“It may not be real popular. It may not be as fun as naming a bridge or naming a road,” he said on the floor, urging a “yes” vote on the amendment. “To wait does one thing, and that is increase the price [of repairs],” he said.

Spokesmen for the House Democratic and Republican caucuses pointed the finger at the other side late Monday, with the Republicans accusing the Democrats of not putting up enough votes and negotiating in bad faith, and Democrats saying the Republican leadership should have put up the legislation without prevailing wage changes.

The vote breakdown was 59 Republicans and 39 Democrats in favor of the bill and 52 Democrats and 51 Republicans opposing it.

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254. Twitter: @KateGiammarise. First Published November 18, 2013 12:32 PM

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