Corbett considering lifting cap on fuel tax to fix roads
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HARRISBURG -- As he prepares a funding plan for repairs to Pennsylvania's roads and bridges, Gov. Tom Corbett gave a pre-emptive defense of a recommendation -- lifting a cap on a tax paid by fuel distributors -- that he acknowledged would be seen by some as violating his pledge against raising taxes.
In one of a series of wide-ranging interviews with Capitol reporters on Thursday, Mr. Corbett said he would present an infrastructure funding plan before his February budget address.
His transportation advisory commission issued its report in August 2011, but the governor has yet to back the panel's recommendations or present an alternative approach.
One component of the commission's plan -- which eventually would raise $2.7 billion in new annual revenue -- is to lift the cap of a levy on wholesale gasoline and diesel, which applies only to $1.25 of each gallon. The report also recommended raising fees for license renewals and vehicle registrations.
Mr. Corbett told reporters Thursday that all of the panel's recommendations are on the table as he crafts his plan. Asked if making more of the wholesale gasoline price taxable would violate his no-tax-hike pledge, Mr. Corbett responded that other people will determine the answer: "If we do that, I think you'll hear both sides. But I will tell you this: It's an artificial cap."
"There's a tax rate on the wholesale price of gas, OK, so it should be the wholesale price of gas," he said. "Somewhere along the line the Legislature said, 'but we'll stop it at $1.25.' "
With a multitude of factors determining gas prices, Mr. Corbett made the case that Pennsylvanians might not pay for the increase at the pump.
"When the oil companies are doing this, they look at the cost across the entire country, and there are multiple factors, not just one oil franchise tax here," he said. "They spread the cost over the entire country. Would there be an automatic quid-pro-quo from one to the other? I don't think so."
Mr. Corbett did not rule out the possibility that the state could prohibit fuel distributors from passing an increase along to customers.
Pennsylvania could see some transportation assistance from Washington. Mr. Corbett pointing to U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster's appointment to head the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as "a very good development in Washington."
"I'm not looking for him to do anything wrong," he said. "But I'm looking for him to be able to help."
Mr. Corbett reiterated his commitment to the pledge he signed as a candidate to oppose any efforts to increase taxes. That pledge, pushed by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and signed by Republicans nationwide, has garnered attention as Washington policy-makers seek a deficit-reduction deal to halt spending cuts set to take effect in January.
"I made a pledge, I'm going to keep the pledge," Mr. Corbett said.
The group interviews came as the governor approaches the halfway mark of his first term.
He used the session to tout a number of items that he achieved with help from the Republican-controlled Legislature, including two on-time budgets, an overhaul of the state's natural-gas drilling rules, and changes to the unemployment compensation system.
Mr. Corbett also expressed frustration with another costly decision before him: whether Pennsylvania should set up its own health-insurance exchange or let federal officials create that program.
State officials have until Dec. 14 to tell the Obama administration which option they prefer, but the governor said Thursday he's still waiting on more information so he can make an informed decision.
He scoffed at draft regulations regarding the exchanges only being released on Tuesday -- more than a week after the state's original decision deadline.
"You sit here and go, what are the rules of the game?" he asked. "I fear they can change the game in the middle of the game, change the rules."
Setting up the exchange is estimated to cost between $30 million and $100 million, Mr. Corbett said, describing his hesitation at taking responsibility for the insurance marketplace as fiscal, not political.
"I think I have a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania to know what the rules are before I make a decision," he said, giving no timeline for making a final call.
First Published November 30, 2012 12:00 am