Let's make a deal
The stage is set in June for a potential deal: House Republicans pass a transportation funding bill most don't want and the Senate holds its nose and approves a limited liquor privatization bill.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett supposedly benefits from both since they are part of his 2013 agenda. How much of a boost, if any, that provides for a governor lagging in the polls remains to be seen. Corbett might have to swallow hard and sign a transportation bill that's more expensive than he wants. But can he get House Republicans to do that?
Lifting the wholesale cap on state gasoline taxes might be sold as a “free market” proposal but it will gradually raise prices at the pump. Higher driver's license fees also are likely.
Sure, people like quality roads but it's hard to see most Pennsylvanians getting excited about paying more. The shift toward phasing out state stores is likely to be so incremental that a lot of people won't notice. The window for full-scale privatization, including the immediate sale of all 600-plus state stores, appears to be past.
The unwritten plan by some at the Capitol would be to peel away a layer of state control a little each year so that the state stores close by attrition. If there's a deal, it might be simple — beer and wine in grocery stores and phasing out state-controlled stores over the long haul.
Eliminating the state's wholesale control of liquor and wine remains a hurdle. Every indication is that liquor store privatization is in deep trouble in the Republican-controlled Senate. It seems to be a lot more than posturing to get higher transportation revenue and to convince Corbett to expand Medicaid funding under ObamaCare.
Getting private wine and beer sales would be a triumph for Corbett and it would change the narrative at the Capitol.
Doing two big issues with the state budget by June 30 is a heavy lift for a part-time Legislature with full-time pay and benefits. And it would require the House Republican Caucus, the most conservative of four, to approve what some will criticize as a tax increase.
House Republicans don't want a $2.5 billion transportation plan. Many want none at all. Senate Republicans don't want House Majority Leader Mike Turzai's idea of liquor privatization. They can't count on getting all Democrats for transportation. So it's possible all we might get is a state budget.
Medicaid expansion has bipartisan support but Corbett is concerned about creating an unsustainable program. Note that the governor's pension reform plan has not even been discussed. Failing to approve Corbett's pension proposal and declining to expand Medicaid make the budget even more complicated.
That's the outlook as June approaches — either a mega deal or a big bust.
Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
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