Gov. Tom Corbett addresses a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate on Tuesday in Harrisburg during the presentation of the state budget.
By Karen Langley Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- A day after unveiling his budget proposal and a long-awaited plan for transportation infrastructure, Gov. Tom Corbett went beyond the Capitol with his pitch that two years of fiscal discipline -- and an eye to deregulation -- will allow Pennsylvania to increase spending.
On Tuesday, Mr. Corbett, a Republican, called for a $28.4 billion state spending plan, an increase of $679 million from the current fiscal year, as well as a package designed to raise $5.4 billion over five years for Pennsylvania roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure. Mr. Corbett, who begins his third year in office, also proposed pension reforms that would both divert new hires into a 401(k)-style plan and revise the future benefits of current employees.
The governor took his plans beyond the General Assembly on Wednesday morning with an address to the Associated Builders and Contractors. As he has in recent days, Mr. Corbett made the case that the spending reductions of the first two years -- coupled with his opposition to raising taxes -- have strengthened the state's finances so that investment is now possible.
He told reporters he will travel the state to win public support for his proposals. In addition to the agenda announced Tuesday, Mr. Corbett last week put forward a plan to sell of the state liquor business, a goal that has eluded Republican governors.
"We're going to be all over the place," he said. "I'm giving you a different appearance than what you were used to in the first two years because we were doing the foundation work in the first two years."
Democrats have argued that the new proposals allot too little to public education and infrastructure repairs and that the privatization of the liquor stores and lottery management should not be relied upon to pay for other programs.
As he described his transportation funding plan to the audience of builders and contractors, Mr. Corbett made the case that the central funding mechanism would be not a tax increase but an act of deregulation. The proposal would increase revenue from a tax on the wholesale price of gas by gradually eliminating a cap. Now, the tax applies only to the first $1.25 per gallon of the wholesale price.
"What we're suggesting is not a new tax, not increasing the tax, but taking the cap off of that and let the market set where we're going with our prices," Mr. Corbett said.
Later, he expanded: "There's an artificial cap. If we believe in a free market system, an artificial cap doesn't work."
The governor's proposal falls short of the $2.5 billion in new annual funding recommended by his advisory commission on transportation funding. That group had called for higher vehicle registration and driver's license fees. The governor's plan would make renewals less frequent, but adjust fees accordingly.
Mr. Corbett told his audience that the state's weakened transportation infrastructure -- with 4,000 bridges rated structurally deficient and 7,500 miles of roads declared in poor condition -- threatens public safety if not repaired. As in his budget address, he said that on every school day 31,000 buses carry 1.5 million children to class.
"Yes, we're going to spend more money," he said. "We need to spend more money. We need to protect those children when they're on our roads and bridges."
But the governor noted the conflict he sees in winning support for transportation improvements or other programs: "Everybody wants more, but they don't want to pay for it."