By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Following years of concern and months of discussion, the state Senate is set to pass a transportation infrastructure funding bill before the end of the week.
The bill still could be amended before it receives a final vote, which is scheduled for Tuesday, but the chief architect of the proposal said those potential changes will be minor. As it stands, the bill would raise $2.5 billion over the next five years, mostly by removing a cap on a tax paid by gas stations on the wholesale price of gasoline and hiking the costs of driver’s licenses and vehicle registration fees.
“This transportation bill’s linkage is to the health, safety and welfare of the residents of Pennsylvania,” said state Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and the prime sponsor of the bill. “I think we’re going to get a product to the governor’s desk by June 30, along with the budget.”
Rafferty expanded upon a $1.7-billion plan proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett in February. Corbett’s plan would have uncapped the gas tax, but did not increase the fees.
In the Senate bill, the cost of a driver’s license will go from $29.50 every four years to $50.50 every six years. A basic vehicle registration will increase from $36 annually to $102 every two years.
To raise more revenue, a new $100 surcharge would be added to all moving violations in the state.
The bill was scheduled to be voted out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday and will be ready for a Senate vote on Tuesday.
The new revenue is intended to address Pennsylvania’s 9,000 miles of state roads in need of repair and the 4,000 structurally deficient bridges, the highest total in the nation. The state has not hiked gas taxes or other transportation-specific revenue streams since 1997, and revenue has taken a hit as vehicles have become more fuel efficient.
After Senate vote, then what?
It’s not clear at the moment if the budget-conscious and tax-averse Corbett is comfortable with the higher level of spending in the Senate plan. But the first possible stumbling block is in the state House, where the bill must win support before it can reach Corbett’s desk.
Republican leaders in the House have not been openly hostile to Rafferty’s plan — they prefer to say simply that they will look at the bill when and if the Senate passes it — but it is obvious there is a significant pocket of resistance among fiscal conservatives who make up the core of the House GOP caucus.
For some, even the governor’s $1.7 billion plan was a bit too much to take from the wallets of Pennsylvania residents.
Notably, a House GOP budget plan unveiled last week did not include Corbett’s transportation funding boost.
All issues in politics ultimately are local, but that holds even truer for transportation funding.
If a lawmaker — particularly the many Republican ones in the state House who won their seats by playing up fiscal conservative credentials and kept those seats by avoiding tax increases during the economic downturn and recovery — is going to vote for what amounts to a $1.5 billion, or more, tax increase on Pennsylvania residents, they are going to want to have something to show for it.
That means they want to have a bridge (or more than one bridge) in their districts get fixed, so they can have ribbon-cutting ceremonies to show their voters that the higher fees were worth it.
For the past several months, Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch and his assistants have been making the rounds with lists of projects for each lawmaker’s district.
Equally important for Schoch is the list of bridges and roads that he says the state won’t be able to repair without additional funding – meaning posted weight restrictions on as many as 1,500 more bridges, causing headaches for school busses and delivery trucks, particularly in rural areas where the detours will be lengthy.
“Then, we’re charging you a different way: increased fuel consumption, increase the cost of materials being shipping to your stores,” Schoch said. “We’re convincing legislators that this is less expensive for their constituents than not doing it.”
Moving towards consensus
With the bill now on the House’s doorstep, some of the resistance might be changing, either the result of Schoch’s work or pressure from unions and business associations — two groups normally seen as rivals but both standing in favor of more state spending on infrastructure.
State Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he was eyeing a spending level “somewhere in between” what Corbett and Rafferty have proposed.
“I want everybody’s input before we have the final package,” he said on Thursday. “I think we can get this done.”
While the final spending figure remains something of a question mark, it appears that Rafferty and Hess have worked out a few other wrinkles that could have gotten in the way.
Last week, both chairmen said they wanted to pass the bill without including a provision to roll the scandal-plagued and debt-ridden Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission into PennDOT.
They similarly agreed to keep separate a discussion about removing prevailing wage requirements for local road repair projects. Local government groups are asking for the prevailing wage rules to be removed because the wage requirement can drive up the cost of road repairs by more than 20 percent.
“They don’t belong in this bill. They are freestanding issues that can be dealt with at a particular time,” Hess said. “We run this bill clean and we can take up those issues at another point in time.”
But there are plenty of Republicans in the state House who are keen to do away with the Turnpike Commission and cut back the prevailing wage laws that unions favor, so hang ups could still occur.
Perhaps the biggest of those hang-ups: The House GOP demand that the Senate pass a liquor privatization bill before transportation will make it to Corbett’s desk.
Democrats have not been part of the negotiations on the transportation bill, but are supportive of the concept and have praised the state Senate for adding to Corbett’s initial proposal.
“We would welcome them to come to us and ask us to be part of the negotiations, for the budget or transportation or for anything else,” said state Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, minority chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.