Pennsylvania House set for vote on transit, highway funding

Republicans' plan raises less than governor requested

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HARRISBURG -- House Republicans are preparing to vote as early as today on a transportation funding plan that is expected to raise considerably less revenue than a bill passed by the Senate.

Work continued over the weekend on a plan that would eliminate a proposed surcharge on traffic tickets and exempt road maintenance from the prevailing wage rates required for construction projects using public money.

House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said in an interview last week that the House does not support the level of spending in the Senate proposal or its inclusion of a $100 surcharge on fines for moving traffic violations. Some police officials have said publicly that the steeper fine could make them think twice about writing tickets.

"The House collectively was probably never where the Senate was, especially with their license increases and the fees," Mr. Smith said.

Establishing new annual funding for roads, bridges and public transit is a priority of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and one of the major initiatives Gov. Tom Corbett has asked legislators to send him by the annual state budget deadline Sunday.

By a 45-5 vote, the Senate this month passed a plan that in its fifth year would generate approximately $2.5 billion in new annual revenue for transportation, a sum in line with the recommendations of a commission Mr. Corbett had convened. The governor in his February budget address called for a plan that would raise $1.8 billion in the fifth year.

Mr. Smith said Thursday that House Republicans had not settled on an overall spending level, but that the sum would "probably" be less than the governor had recommended. The surcharge for moving traffic violations would go toward mass transit, a recipient some House Republicans regard with a skeptical eye. But Mr. Smith said he did not expect reductions in proposed funding to fall more heavily upon public transit than roads and bridges.

"The ratio between, say, highways and bridges and mass transit, anything the House would look at would have something pretty close to that same proportion," he said.

Democrats, many of whom represent areas that rely on public transportation, have been sensitive to the threat of reductions. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said while speaking about the surcharge that transit funding is critical to his colleagues.

"My hope is if that is in fact removed that we find a replacement stream to allow for transit funding to take place," he said. "We think that's extremely critical."

Republicans also planned to propose exempting road maintenance from a requirement that keeps wages on public construction projects in line with those in labor union contracts.

"If there's going to be a transportation plan, we believe it's imperative to be part of it to get to the governor," said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans.

It's no secret that House Republicans are having to work to round up votes for a bill that would raise billions of dollars in new revenue, in part by making the full wholesale price of gasoline, rather than just a portion, subject to a tax paid by distributors. Democrats have long called for transportation funding, but party leaders said last week that they have not been consulted on the plan.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said that lack of communication, as well as objections by Democrats to Republican policies in general, have made it hard to prepare to help pass the transportation bill.

"If they continue with this agenda -- that is, selling liquor stores, not expanding Medicaid, not funding education -- we've got huge problems within our caucus putting votes together," he said. "There's no question about that. People are upset."

Mr. Dermody said House Democrats have been excluded from budget negotiations for three years.

"Now they want our help," he said. "Well, look, we know we need to do transportation, but it makes it very difficult. We don't have a plan. We don't have a bill. We don't know what they want us to vote for. There's a week left before it's June 30th, and we don't have a bill to even talk about. So certainly the agenda makes it more difficult for us to get votes."

Transportation funding has strong support in some Republican quarters. Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, said he believes his district, in Armstrong and Indiana counties, would benefit tremendously from the package.

"I can't vote on this bill fast enough," he said at a Transportation Committee meeting last week. "I feel this bill needs to be moved quickly."

But Mr. Pyle said he is glad the $100 fee is on its way out because he believes the state should not use the police to generate revenue -- and he spoke to the skepticism some rural members have to the operations of public transit agencies.

"I don't feel bad about not replacing another $100 poke-in-the-eye that goes to replace bus lines that may or may not be doing what they should be," he said.

As the House prepares to address transportation funding, a Senate committee is scheduled to take up a proposal to transfer wine and liquor sales from the state to private business, a priority of House Republicans and Mr. Corbett. Never far from the conversation about either subject is the status of its counterpart in the other chamber.

"If something pretty respectable doesn't happen with liquor, it's going to be tougher to get something with transportation in the House," Mr. Smith said.

"It's the elephant in the room."

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Karen Langley: or 1-717-787-2141. Kate Giammarise contributed to this report.


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