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Pennsylvania gas tax hike still an iffy proposition

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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HARRISBURG

OK, it's sort of set. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said at the governor's request he postponed a House vote on transportation revenue until Oct. 15.

This is the gas tax increase the governor is pursuing that he insists is not a tax increase. Excuse me, it's a user fee. Ahem.

It's actually both. If it walks like a gas tax increase and talks like a gas tax increase, it is one. Prices assuredly go up at the pump from lifting the state's wholesale tax cap. If you don't drive, you won't pay except maybe to fill your lawn mower.

Whatever the governor and other supporters call it, prices at the pump likely will rise to provide money for improving roads and fixing decrepit bridges. But even after prior gas tax increases and maybe a marginal improvement here or there, Pennsylvania's highway infrastructure has been consistently bad. You see portions of highways, especially the turnpike, under construction and seven or so years later crews are fixing them. The state spends roughly $7 billion a year on transportation.

Senate Bill 1 is a $2.5 billion measure on which Republican Gov. Tom Corbett wants a vote. It passed the Senate with bipartisan support. And Corbett needs this win. But pushing a highway bill through the General Assembly has followed a treacherous path. Members of Corbett's own party in the House — maybe a majority, perhaps two-thirds of the caucus — think it is a tax hike.

Turzai, though, has said he will schedule the vote at Corbett's request since Corbett is governor and it's one of his priorities. Turzai won't acknowledge that most House Republicans oppose it, saying only they are divided.

Lawmakers left for a 2½-month recess after concluding the budget in June without approving Corbett's priorities of transportation and liquor and pension reform.

Voting schedules in the House and Senate are like the shifting sands. Don't mark the 15th in permanent marker.

Turzai runs the risk of calling up a bill that most of his members might oppose. But the bill might just pass. That could happen with the virtually unanimous support of Democrats and Southeastern Republicans.

It's how Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell's agenda frequently made it through the House. Former House Speaker John Perzel, the Philadelphia Republican now in prison for corruption, put together coalitions for Rendell's tax increases and casino legalization bill. Most Republicans opposed Rendell's agenda but Perzel was their leader.

Turzai isn't Perzel and he's sensitive to both views. It's a tough spot.

The gas tax bill could fail and fail miserably. That would put the entire transportation revenue debate in a new light.

My hunch is it won't be brought up to fail. Corbett wouldn't want that. My guess is it's called up and approved — or buried while negotiations continue.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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