Corbett's agenda creeps ahead slowly
HARRISBURG — State lawmakers signaled on Tuesday they are moving ahead with two of Gov. Tom Corbett's top priorities — raising billions for transportation projects and slashing public pension costs — though serious questions about both remain.
The Senate Transportation Committee approved a $2.5 billion transportation bill, underwritten primarily by an increase in a wholesale gas tax that is expected to be passed on to drivers at the pump. The 13-1 committee vote brought together urban Democrats and conservative midstate Republicans.
“Four years ago, Gov. Rendell drove a bus through my district and announced at every stop in the 41st District that I have the worst roads and bridges per capita of any other senatorial district in the state of Pennsylvania,” Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, told the packed committee hearing room. “I was with him then, and ... in my area, the effect is going to be just huge.”
The Senate's transportation bill is larger than the $1.8 billion that Corbett initially sought, and House Republican leaders are cool to such a large gas tax increase.
Meanwhile, key lawmakers said they will introduce Corbett's pension overhaul plan in separate but similar House and Senate bills in spite of resistance from some GOP leaders and vocal opposition from Democrats and employee unions.
The plan would reduce pension benefits for more than 370,000 current state and school employees, beginning in 2015, to save about $12 billion over 30 years.
Sen. Mike Brubaker of Lancaster County said that unless drastic measures are taken, the unfunded liability of the state's two major pension funds will reach $65 billion by 2018, forcing spending cuts or tax increases.
On Friday, Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said the Senate may limit the focus of any benefit cuts to new hires because of questions about the legality of Corbett's more far-reaching proposal to freeze the benefits for all employees and replace them with reduced benefits in 2015.
Unions have vowed to challenge Corbett's proposal in court if it is approved by the Legislature.
The moves occur as the Republican-controlled Legislature scrambles to wrap up work on a budget and Corbett's priorities by July 1.