House adjourns with no movement on transit

Bill would fund roads, bridges and mass transportation

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HARRISBURG -- With a budget deadline looming tonight, state House members Saturday night adjourned without debating a major transportation funding package -- one of a pair of dueling bills that would fund roads, bridges and mass transit.

Legislative leaders said despite the setback they were confident the state's overall budget would be completed on time.

With the fiscal year ending at midnight, Senate and House leaders said Saturday evening they had reached agreement on a new budget. The $28.37 billion plan, which would spend 2.3 percent more than the current year, cleared a Senate panel on a party-line vote, with all Democrats opposed.

Gov. Tom Corbett has previously said he would like a transportation bill -- one of his major legislative priorities -- on his desk by today.

After hours of closed-door caucus meetings and as Saturday afternoon turned into Saturday evening, the bill's fate in the House appeared uncertain.

"We have a significant number of Republican votes, but we do not have any Democratic votes," said Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, as he was swarmed by reporters after the House adjourned.

Republican and Democratic leaders were all pointing fingers Saturday night.

"We were given a number to hit, from a vote perspective, from a House Republican perspective. We have reached that number," said Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, though he declined to say how many votes Republicans could put forth to support the bill.

Essentially, the House plan has garnered criticism from both sides of the aisle -- both from more conservative Republicans who say they oppose what they see as a gas tax increase, as well as from Democrats who don't think it goes far enough to fund infrastructure and especially mass transit, critical in urban districts.

"House Democrats are insistent that this bill needs to be bigger," Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democrats, said Saturday afternoon.

Republicans are the majority party in the House; Democrats account for 92 of the chamber's 203 members.

"The bill as it stands right now is completely unsatisfactory. It is particularly deficient for transit, but even on roads and bridges it falls far short of where we need to be," Mr. Patton said.

The House version is smaller than the $2.5 billion version of the legislation approved by the Senate.

At the same time, a block of Republicans have said they couldn't support the bill either, for different reasons.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said he couldn't support what he views as a tax increase only to pump "hundreds of millions of dollars into the mass transit system ... subsidizing somebody's bus fare," he said at a news conference in the Capitol Friday morning.

Both versions of the bill rely on lifting a cap on taxes paid by gasoline wholesalers, which could raise the price paid by drivers at the pump. The House bill phases the increase over five years, the Senate over three years.

The Senate plan also offers far more funding for mass transit -- a key issue for Democratic legislators. The Senate version would offer about $480 million in annual transit funding by the fifth year; the House bill far less.

Additionally, under the House bill, transit agencies would have to secure additional local funding to match the state money -- 20 percent instead of 15 percent for operating dollars and 10 percent rather than 3.3 percent for capital funds. Local governments would have the option of enacting new taxes to generate that money: a 0.2 percent earned income tax, a 0.25 percent sales tax or a 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax.

The Legislature last increased transportation funding in 1997.

"I don't necessarily think it means [the bill] is dead," said David Patti, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Business Council, who has advocated for more transportation funding. "It just isn't there yet."

He added, "If it takes another day, it takes another day. I'd rather see them get it right."

The Senate also adjourned late Saturday, but not before advancing legislation to potentially expand Medicaid eligibility to hundreds of thousands of adult Pennsylvanians under the federal health care law, provided certain conditions are met. The bill won strong approval from Senate committees on Friday and Saturday nights.

The proposal, supported by Senate Republicans and Democrats, was expected to face an uncertain future in the House, where more than 30 Republican members have said they are ready to oppose the budget if related legislation would expand Medicaid.

House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, said Saturday that House Republicans have a plan for handling the proposal, which is lodged in a bill that accompanies the budget, but he declined to elaborate.

"We've figured out how we're going to manage the issue," Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Turzai, the House majority leader, said a budget would be passed by tonight's deadline.

"We're aware of their number, and we're working with them right now," said Eric Shirk, a spokesman for Mr. Corbett. "We're optimistic that we'll have something done soon."

The general appropriations bill increases basic-education spending $122.5 million from the current year, a larger jump than proposed earlier by Mr. Corbett and House Republicans.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the budget had been agreed to by the governor and the House.

He said he expects legislators will deliver the budget and accompanying bills by the midnight deadline, but that other bills could keep them in session past today.

"We may be here a couple days next week," Mr. Corman said. "That's a possibility. I wouldn't say anything for lack of days couldn't get done."

The House Saturday evening added voting sessions to its calendar for Monday and Tuesday.

state - Transportation

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141.


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