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Time short to approve transit bill, experts say

| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — With 10 session days remaining through mid-December, the General Assembly is down to the wire to vote on legislation providing money to fix highways and bridges, and fund mass transit.

The two-year session continues in January, but 2014 is an election year for House members and half of the Senate. That could make some legislators skittish, analysts say, because most transportation-related plans suggest lifting the cap on taxing wholesale gasoline — an idea opponents call a “tax increase” and supporters call a “user fee.”

“If it doesn't happen in 10 session days, then I don't think it gets done,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.

The House and Senate will return to session on Tuesday. Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said the House is not likely to consider transportation this week.

A meeting among leaders of both parties last week yielded “progress,” according to Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Republicans.

“We're optimistic an agreement can be reached this year,” he said.

“If they are going to do it, now is the time,” said Moe Coleman, director emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics.

Despite resistance among most conservative Republican House members, the legislation has the backing of Senate Republicans, Democrats in both chambers and GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, Coleman noted.

“I think there's significant pressure for it to get done,” Coleman said.

A transportation bill is a priority for Corbett, who offered a $1.8 billion proposal in February.

A $2.5 billion bill passed the Senate in June but stalled in the House. Turzai, who controls which bills are brought to the House floor, has said he favors a $500 million “critical needs” bill that would, for example, address the bridges in the worst condition.

The $500 million figure is what Democrats want just for mass transit, Dermody said. He said Republicans must stop pushing for language that eliminates a law mandating union-scale wages on some public construction projects.

House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, has said that is a priority for House Republicans.

Republicans control the House but need a significant share of votes from Democrats, given the resistance of conservatives.

Democratic Reps. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia and Jake Wheatley of the Hill District last week offered a $2.2 billion bill they say is a compromise plan.

Other measures on table

On a bill apparently closer to finalization, the House is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday to consider legislation that would allow bars to profit from the sale of small games of chance, such as punch boards, pull tabs and raffles, Miskin said.

About 4,500 bars could apply for licenses. The state would get 60 percent of the bar's profit.

Another bill would expand small games allowed in fraternal organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion posts and Moose lodges.

The House will consider legislation that would establish a new offense of “sexual assault by a sports official” — such as coaches and athletic trainers — for those who engage in sex with children younger than 18.

The bill by Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery County, would give prosecutors another tool to use to go after offenders in a position of authority in athletics.

The bill was sparked by a Montgomery County volleyball coach's relationship with a 15-year-old girl. The coach, William “Billy” Gordon III of Lower Pottsville, is serving an eight- to 25-year prison sentence.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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