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Chances for transit, liquor bills in Pennsylvania are slim

| Thursday, July 4, 2013, 9:55 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Prospects appear bleak for enactment of liquor privatization and a transportation bill in the fall, analysts say.

Despite Republican control of the Senate and House, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett was unable to get lawmakers to approve either of his key issues by June 30, the budget deadline and fiscal year-end. Budget deadlines typically give governors some leverage on issues, but not this time.

His third priority, pension reform, received little substanative attention from lawmakers.

“I don't think any will pass this fall,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University. “If any are approved, it would be transportation.”

The General Assembly returns to session in September.

The notion of Republican leaders from two chambers and a GOP governor failing to agree is “theater of the absurd,” said Joe DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.

“It's really unusual, in my opinion,” said Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh.

Corbett continues to express optimism that lawmakers will pass transportation and liquor reform, encouraged that the House and Senate each have passed versions of the liquor privatization bill.

“We are this close. This needs to be done by November of 2014. This is a two-year legislative session,” Corbett said on Wednesday while attending the Big Butler Fair.

Coleman believes Corbett has a shot at getting a transportation bill through in the fall because it is legislation “that affects everybody,” he said.

DiSarro thinks Corbett has a slim chance of getting his agenda approved because lawmakers haven't agreed with the governor on anything beyond a budget.

“It would to me be very surprising,” DiSarro said. “The horse is already out of the barn.”

Bills to raise money for bridges, highways and mass transit become harder to push through the closer it gets to an election, analysts say. By October, it'll be “impossible,” DiSarro predicts. Lifting the cap on the wholesale gasoline tax to generate revenue “is a tax increase,” he said.

It is necessary, and the political fallout probably would not be significant, he said, but lawmakers will look ahead to 2014 campaigns starting in January and, for many, voting for tax increases would be out of the question.

Liquor privatization and transportation were unofficially linked last weekend. The idea was that the Senate, which wanted to boost transportation funding but did not particularly want liquor reform, would support a modest liquor bill if the House approved a transportation bill.

An amendment to expand private liquor sales won Senate approval on Saturday, but it was not brought up for a full Senate vote. A $2 billion transportation bill won committee approval but didn't make it to the House floor.

Both then crashed.

They need to uncoupled, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, suggested.

“Transportation needs to be in its own silo,” Turzai said. “We could be very close to a negotiated product, with respect to the sale of wine and spirits.”

Corbett had hailed passage of the Senate amendment, saying he would sign it if it came to his desk.

Liquor privatization, sought by four previous governors, made it further through the legislative process than any time before. The House passed a Turzai-sponsored bill in March, tilted more toward privatization than the recent Senate bill.

The Senate bill “is significantly different,” Coleman said. “Turzai seems to want to get rid of the state stores. The Senate bill fudges that.”

Those differences seem too vast to be resolved in a few months, he said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405.

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