By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
Conservative lawmakers and political organizations promised to make Pennsylvania’s new $2.3 billion transportation spending plan a campaign issue, even before the last vote was cast to send the bill to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.
The state Senate voted 43-7 on Wednesday and the state House concurred with a 113-85 vote on Thursday, capping off a contentious week for the major legislative initiative.
But Thursday might not be the end of the battle over the bill, which will fund road and bridge repairs, mass transit operations and about $50 million in lawmakers’ discretionary projects.
State Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, told PA Independent on Thursday he plans to introduce legislation in December to repeal the gasoline tax increase that provides the majority of the new revenue for the transportation plan.
Though such an effort likely is futile, Roae made it clear that he hopes his fellow lawmakers who voted “no” will help stir up grassroots opposition when they go back to their districts over the upcoming holiday.
“If there is a lot of public outrage like there was with the pay raise, it may get repealed,” said Roae, referring to the 2005 legislative pay raise vote, which caused a voter backlash that ousted several top lawmakers in both parties. “If there is not, people will just smile and pay hundreds a year more in higher taxes and higher fees.”
Conservative lawmakers opposed to the transportation bill claim the new tax structure will add 28 cents to the average price per gallon at the pump. The bill repeals an existing tax on retail sales of gasoline but increases taxes at the wholesale level.
Since those wholesale taxes will be paid by gas stations, it is difficult to predict how much of the new tax will be passed on to consumers, but likely at least some of the cost will be.
The new tax will phase in over five years, meaning prices are unlikely to spike but will increase gradually. PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch has repeatedly argued that consumers will be unlikely to notice the changes due to the ever-fluctuating price of gasoline.
By the fifth year of the plan, the average Pennsylvania driver will pay about $2.50 per week in additional taxes, PennDOT projects.
But that hasn’t stopped at least one tea party group from promising to try to undercut the new transportation law by having members buy gas from other states.
In a statement, the Independence Hall Tea Party, a Philadelphia-based group, encouraged drivers to fill up in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and elsewhere in order to “spoil the plans of our elected tax collectors.”
“The Pennsylvania (g)overnment thinks it’s going to collect billions of dollars from its citizens by forcing us to pay for a tax increase at the gas pump. Well, we do have additional options,” said Teri Adams, the group’s president.
And lawmakers who voted for the bill are not likely to be allowed to forget it when next year’s legislative elections roll around.
The American Future Fund PAC, a national conservative campaign group, released on Thursday what it said was the first in a series of ads targeting Pennsylvania state lawmakers. Among the group’s key issues was the “massive tax increase and transportation bill.”
The group says it will target lawmakers who campaigned on a free-market agenda and then abandoned those principles in office.
“From the failed Obamacare Medicaid expansion, to the gas tax just this week, and continued government control of the state’s liquor industry, Pennsylvania has slowly become a state that is only an enabler to the liberal national agenda,” AFF Political Action Chairman Nick Ryan said in a statement.
But this week’s votes clearly divided both Republicans and their usual supporters. In all, 65 members of the House GOP voted for the transportation bill on Thursday while 45 opposed it.
While groups like AFF might want to pick-off those who voted for the bill, business groups like the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, usually opposed to tax increases, support the transportation bill. They saw the benefits to Pennsylvania’s infrastructure as outweighing the costs of the tax changes.
“A properly funded transportation infrastructure system is an essential function of state government and is vital to efficient commerce and motorist safety,” said Gene Barr, president of the chamber.
With the primary election a little more than six months away, this won’t be the last time Thursday’s vote and its implications for Pennsylvania’s economy — and taxpayers’ wallets — is debated.
Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.