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Pa. House rejects $2.3 billion transportation bill

| Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, 12:51 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The Republican-controlled state House on Monday night defeated a $2.3 billion transportation package to help fix Pennsylvania's crumbling bridges and roads, and to bolster mass transit.

It was a top priority for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who hours earlier urged passage at a rally with union and business leaders. Legislation to pay for transportation improvements has proven difficult to get through the House since the Senate approved a $2.5 billion plan in June.

It was defeated by a 103-98 margin.

After the measure was brought up for reconsideration, it failed by a larger margin, 112-89. Asked if there will be another attempt to vote on it Tuesday, House Republican spokesman Stephen Miskin said “it's always possible.” But he signaled no definite plan to do so.

House Republicans met behind closed doors for hours on the proposal, which has divided the GOP caucus on whether the legislation's funding mechanism is a tax increase.

“Pennsylvanians can wait no longer to be assured their bridges will be safe and remain open, their highways will remain smooth, and their transit systems will be kept in place,” Corbett said earlier on Monday. “No action on the compromise plan that all sides have hammered out in the last few weeks is not acceptable. Pennsylvania will suffer in many ways if this opportunity passes.”

Corbett said transportation is among “certain core functions of government.”

Rep. Brad Roae, a Crawford County Republican, called the legislation “a $2.5 billion tax increase.” It is “absolutely certain” that under the bill, oil companies will pass higher wholesale gas taxes onto consumers, Roae said.

“The Corbett tax increase ... sets us up to have the highest gas tax in the country,” said Rep, Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry.

Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware County, a supporter, called it “a user's tax.”

Without addressing the state's infrastructure, “Mark my words, there will be a bridge go down,” said Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, R-Armstrong County.

Miskin attempted to blame House Minority Leader Frank Dermody for helping to negotiate the package then voting against it. Dermody, D-Oakmont, never discussed one controversial part of the plan to change government-paid wage scales on some public projects, his spokesman Bill Patton said. Democrats put up far more votes for the tax increase — 39 — than minority parties typically provide, the spokesman added. “This was a failure by the Republican party to get this done,” Patton said.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, called up his own leaner transportation funding plan after Micozzie's was defeated. His $971 million plan was briefly debated. Turzai withdrew his plan without explanation before session ended late Monday.

“It's going to mean jobs,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said of the bill. “It will preserve jobs and grow more jobs.” Passage of that will avoid cutting Port Authority transit routes and possibly raising fares on PAT buses, said Fitzgerald, who attended the Capitol Rotunda rally.

Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Carlisle, said the failed amendment had “more subsidies for urban mass transit boondoggles.”

The defeated amendment by House Transportation Chairman Nicholas Micozzie, R-Delaware County, would raise $1.65 billion a year by 2017 and provide up to $497 million a year for mass transit. The Miccozie amendment reflected the “framework” of an agreement among the four caucuses in the House and Senate.

After defeating the transportation plan pushed by Corbett, the House began debating a leaner version of the legislation. But House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, withdrew his proposed $971 million package that would have provided $681 million a year for roads and bridges, $213 million for mass transit and $77 million for multi-modal needs such as rail, bicycle and pedestrian projects. It was intended to address the state's most critical transportation needs, he said.

Turzai withdrew his amendment without explanation.

Port Authority receives 22.6 percent of state transit funding, so Micozzie's plan could have meant an extra $105.5 million for the agency by the fifth year. It is operating on a $366.6 million budget this year. Micozzie's proposal would rely on increased tax revenue to bring in $1.85 billion. The state's 12-cent per gallon retail gas tax that motorists pay at the pump would be eliminated, but so would a cap on the Oil Company Franchise Tax that wholesalers pay. Increases in the wholesale tax rate could be passed on to consumers.

Gas prices could increase 28.5 cents per gallon over five years. Vehicle registration and driver license fees would increase under the defeated plan.

A critical element during the debate was modifying Pennsylvania's prevailing wage law, to lessen the wage rates that state and local governments spend on public projects. The Micozzie amendment included language aimed at reducing wages on construction of public works projects. In urban areas, governments may have to pay union rates on non-union jobs costing $25,000 or more. The law would increase the threshold to $100,000 projects.

Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who joined Corbett at the rally, predicted “prevailing wage could still be a problem.” Rendell failed during his final two years as governor to push a plan through the legislature.

Roae said the legislation “does absolutely nothing about prevailing wage” since most PennDOT projects exceed $100,000.

But Patton said he hopes Republicans call up an amendment by House Minority Whip Mike Hanna, which is identical to Micozzie's except there's no prevailing wage language.

Dermody said Pennsylvanians “are lucky so far it's simply a matter of crumbling roads and weight-restricted bridges, but we are driving on borrowed time. ... Lives are at risk.” Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery County, called it “a do-or-die moment for comprehensive transportation funding.”

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