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Analysts hold little hope for liquor, transit bills

| Sunday, July 14, 2013, 10:50 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Linking a bill to raise money for transportation to one that would privatize liquor sales was supposed to be the key to their passage in the General Assembly. Instead, the strategy doomed both proposals, analysts and lawmakers say.

Before the Legislature recessed for summer on July 1, it played “a game of chicken to the end,” said one analyst, involving the two bills on Gov. Tom Corbett's agenda. Though Republicans control the governor's mansion and both legislative chambers, no one budged.

It was “just a huge stare-down with the House,” said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield.

The House, led by Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods, wanted liquor privatization. The Senate, with bipartisan support, advocated for $2.5 billion annually for roads, bridges and struggling mass transit systems. No formal agreement linked the bills, just an understanding.

Picking up the pieces when lawmakers return in September will be difficult, analysts say.

“It's tricky,” said Jack Treadway, author of a book on state elections. “It's where leadership becomes crucial.”

The prospects are “not very good at all,” said Treadway, a former political science professor at Kutztown University.

Liquor reform might have hit its high-water mark. The issue has stymied four governors, including Corbett, who pledged to work toward both goals and pension reform through November 2014.

That means Pennsylvania's status as one of two states with a government liquor monopoly and reputation for aging roads and bridges will continue. For the foreseeable future, Pennsylvania will sell liquor and wine primarily through more than 600 state-owned stores and beer by the case through distributors.

Other than a one-day House session on Monday, the Legislature won't return to the Capitol until Sept. 23. Analysts predict a brief window, through early October, to pass controversial bills before lawmakers and Corbett begin to concentrate on 2014 re-election campaigns.

“I wouldn't hold out much hope,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University.

‘Heels dug in'

The liquor and transportation bills failed amid intense lobbying by unions protecting state-store jobs, a partisan protest by House Democrats, pressure from conservative House Republicans to block “tax increases” in the transportation plan, soft support among Senate Republicans for selling the state stores and an inability or unwillingness by the House or Senate to take the first step.

Ward attributes the liquor bill's downfall to a “mishmash” of special interests and its tie to transportation funding. The Senate approved an amendment — but not a bill on final passage — to make liquor, wine and beer more readily available through private sales.

Senate leaders decided not to send the bill to the House without the House approving a transportation plan, Ward said.

“Some of us wanted to send it anyway, (but) people that had their heels dug in about the transportation funding would pull their votes back on the liquor bill,” she said.

That's what Leckrone called “a game of chicken.”

Senate leaders didn't decide to hold back, a staffer said, instead pointing to members who were willing to support the liquor bill only if the House moved a transportation bill.

“The transportation connection made an already messy system more muddied,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

Sen. Don White of Indiana was the only Republican to vote against liquor privatization in committee and support it before the full Senate. Democrats united against the bill.

“I was pretty much a ‘no' vote all along. Then at the end they said that was the only way to get transportation (through), and that was one of my priorities,” White said. “At the end, I did cross my fingers, hold my nose and vote yes.

“Obviously, we played blind man's bluff down there and waited to see if the House blinked on transportation.”

Unpopular ‘gas tax' vote

White doesn't think private liquor sales would work well in rural Pennsylvania, where people might have difficulty accessing stores and little competition might occur among retailers. But money to fix roads, bridges and struggling mass transit systems is something the state desperately needs, he said.

“Yeah, it's going to be unpopular, and yeah, it's going to be a tough vote ... but I need safe bridges and safe roads, and we don't have them,” he said.

The transportation proposals would uncap the state's wholesale tax on gasoline. That would result in higher prices at the pump. Senate and House bills phased it in to lessen the impact on motorists.

Still, that didn't sit well with conservative House Republicans who viewed it as the largest gas tax increase in state history.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, the ringleader of that GOP right wing, said he “blasted (the) Corbett gas tax increase” in caucus and said any leaders who let it go forward didn't deserve to be leaders.

House Democrats couldn't be persuaded to make up the votes lost as a result of conservative Republican defections.

“It makes it hard to go back to your caucus and get votes for taxes when you haven't been consulted on anything for 2½ years,” said Minority Leader Frank Dermody of Oakmont.

Moreover, a scaled down $2.2 billion bill shortchanged mass transit, a Democratic priority, Dermody said, though Republicans dispute that.

Shrewd union lobbying

For months, union lobbyists kept pressure on wavering lawmakers. TV ads attacked Corbett's liquor plan and the United Food and Commercial Workers, representing state store employees, sent yellow-shirted protestors to roam Capitol hallways.

The Tribune-Review obtained an email in which the Independent State Store Union, on the final weekend, told the liquor store managers it represents to ask legislators to vote “no” on transportation funding, in order to kill liquor privatization.

“The state store union shrewdly threw a wrench in the works by getting House Democrats to abandon transportation funding for their hard-hat union brethren,” said David Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, a privatization proponent.

Bill Patton, a spokesman for Dermody, downplayed the influence of any email that might have gone to members considering big-picture issues.

“Democrats will continue to work for a transportation plan that adequately funds highways, bridges and transit and is sustainable,” Patton said.

Corbett suggested on Wednesday in Pittsburgh that Democrats are “putting politics over the safety of the people, and it's making the people of Pennsylvania the losers so far.”

Lagging in public opinion polls, Corbett may no longer have the political capital to push through bills and should have tried earlier in his term, Leckrone said.

Brad Bumsted and Kari Andren are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Bumsted at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com. Reach Andren at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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