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Money for Philadelphia schools may ease way to transportation funding

| Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 2:21 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's release of $45 million to the cash-strapped Philadelphia school district may represent a step toward an eventual deal on transportation revenue, said staff members for legislative leaders.

Corbett's spokesman, Jay Pagni, flatly denied a connection. “It is not” tied to transportation, Pagni said.

Corbett released the money, removing “what would certainly have been an obstacle, but it does not trigger a deal on transportation,” said House Democratic Caucus spokesman Bill Patton. A Republican staffer confirmed that helping Philadelphia schools may make a transportation deal more likely.

Still, Pagni said, “This has nothing to do with politics; it has everything to do with the Philadelphia school district.”

Corbett withheld the money since lawmakers approved the state budget in June, saying he needed evidence of substantial reform in Philadelphia. A letter from Superintendent William Hite convinced the governor that district officials are making operational and managerial changes, Pagni said.

“I have not heard that buzz and don't think that's accurate,” House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said on Wednesday of reports there may be a link between the school funding release and a deal on transportation.

“I'm not aware of a deal,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.

Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty, R-Chester County, said he hopes resolution of the school funding issue improves the climate for a transportation funding bill. But he said, “I've had no discussion with anyone about it” except Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch.

Rafferty is sponsor of a Senate funding bill to provide $2.5 billion in new revenue to fix roads and bridges and maintain mass transit.

Getting the Legislature to approve money for transportation needs has proven to be elusive for Corbett. Lawmakers recessed for 2 12 months in June without approving a transportation bill.

Turzai said he intends to call for a vote on the transportation bill next week. House Republicans are divided on the bill approved by the Senate. Turzai said he favors a $500 million bill for “critical needs” such as structurally deficient bridges.

Most of the money in the Senate bill would come from lifting the cap on the state's wholesale tax on gasoline, which opponents call a tax increase and supporters say is a user fee.

Lawmakers said in June that they perceived a tie between a transportation bill and legislation to privatize the state stores. The state House approved a plan to phase out the state-owned liquor stores but balked at passing transportation funding. The Senate approved Rafferty's transportation bill, but many senators of both parties said they were reluctant to sell the state stores.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol writer. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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