The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

June 30, 2013

House Republicans can't seal transportation deal

Rural reps, Dems won't go for tax hike

By John Finnerty
CNHI Capitol Correspondent

HARRISBURG — Saturday afternoon, Rep. Fred Keller said that he was studying the language in a multi-billion dollar transportation funding plan to determine if he would vote for it.

His decision would not necessarily be swayed by the fact that the measure could provide the money to pay for a Thruway in his district that constituents have been waiting 40 years to see built, Keller, R-Union County said.

“I am man of integrity,” he said. “I can’t be bought for $1 or $558 million.”

House Democrats may have saved him the trouble of making that vote of integrity by torpedoing the transportation plan.

House Republican leaders Saturday night conceded that they don’t have the votes to move on the bill, just two days before the end of the fiscal year.

Republicans blamed a boycott by Democrats who refused to back the bill. But the measure’s success had always depended on a fragile bipartisan coalition. There has been resistance to the plan from rural lawmakers in both parties over the plan’s use of a gas tax increase. Urban Democrats have complained that the House version of the transportation plan would not spend enough on mass transit.

When the House transportation committee approved the transportation bill, only three Democrats voted in favor of it.  State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, was among those who voted against the plan. Longietti has said he opposed the plan because he could see no benefit for his district that justified the cost.

“Auto drivers already subsidize mass transit users by about $1 billion a year and I am not going to vote to increase that by hundreds of millions more,” said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County. “I am not going to vote to cause gasoline prices to go up 28 cents per gallon.”

Roae is part of a revolt that forced the Republican leadership to turn to Democrats for help.

Earlier Saturday, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County, tweeted that he had a “heated exchange with a (House Republican) leader.”

“I strongly voiced my objections in a Republican Caucus meeting yesterday regarding the proposed gas tax increase,” Metcalfe said.

“I let them know that if they went against a majority of Republicans to pass the gas tax with Democrat votes then they should not be re-elected as leaders.”  

Rep. Dick Stevenson, R-Mercer County, said that he understands the concerns of those who oppose the plan over the tax increase.

But, he is in favor of the transportation plan because there has been a “demonstrated need” for highway and bridge repairs since the days of the Rendell Administration, Stevenson said. State leaders have struggled though to come up with a workable plan for paying for the transportation construction, he said.

Stevenson said that lawmakers had been prepared to attach an amendment to the transportation plan that would have eliminated the 12 cents-a-gallon state sales tax on gas in exchange for the increase in the wholesale Oil Company Franchise Tax. Most analysts believe that increasing that wholesale tax will translate into a 25-28 cent a gallon increase in price at the pump.

After the House abruptly adjourned for the night Saturday without addressing transportation, Keller conceded that “We will meet our Constitutional obligation to pass a budget on time,” but other accomplishments are now in doubt.

There are close to 100 potential amendments to the transportation plan that lawmakers have submitted and one of them might offer a pathway to passing the measure, Keller said.

The Legislature is expected to return to Harrisburg on July 1 to finish its work, but whether that will include further discussion of the transportation plan is unclear.

“I am less optimistic now than I was a couple days ago,” Keller said.