Transportation bill may get vote

HARRISBURG – A $2.5 billion proposal to raise taxes and fees to fund improvements to Pennsylvania’s highways, bridges and mass transit systems may soon get a vote in the state House, three months after it stalled during lawmakers’ budget negotiations.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said at a Pennsylvania Press Club appearance on Monday that he was working toward scheduling some type of vote in the near future. The Senate voted overwhelmingly in June to approve a $2.5 billion-a-year transportation funding plan that later met opposition from the House’s Republican majority, many of whom oppose the new taxes and fees that it would require.

Turzai said the vote was being planned at the request of Gov. Tom Corbett, even though Turzai himself opposes the Senate bill, and Corbett has never voiced support for it, either.

“Look, he’s the governor,” Turzai told reporters. “He’s the governor from our party. This is what he’s advocating for.”

House Democrats largely support the Senate’s bill, and any vote in the House likely would require Democrats to supply the lion’s share of votes, since Republicans control the House by a 111-92 margin. The Senate’s bill also is supported by business groups and labor unions.

A spokeswoman for the Republican governor said later that Corbett had not specifically asked Turzai for a vote on the Senate bill. Rather, Corbett asked for action on a transportation funding bill, without saying what exactly he would support, spokeswoman Lynn Lawson said.

Monday marked the Legislature’s return to Harrisburg.

The lawmakers departed Harrisburg in early July without passing three of the governor’s top agenda items: increasing gas taxes to improve transportation systems, privatizing the sale of wine and spirits and changing the state’s major public employee pension systems.

Turzai said his other short-term priorities include moving new state employees into a defined contribution pension plan, giving local governments some flexibility to shift taxes away from property taxes, addressing problems with cyber charter schools and preventing government unions from having the government collect dues on their behalf.

A group of public school advocates greeted lawmakers by highlighting what they call Pennsylvania’s broken process to distribute state funding to 500 schools districts each year. Meanwhile, Rick Bloomingdale, the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, was in the building pushing for action on transportation funding legislation, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter met with Corbett as the city’s school district struggles with its biggest funding crisis in memory.

In February, Corbett proposed a $1.8 billion transportation funding bill that did not get traction in the Legislature, while House Republicans amended the Senate’s transportation bill to an approximately $2 billion product. However, that version stalled.

Movement on transportation could encourage Republican senators to support liquor system privatization legislation, a top priority of the House GOP and a proposal that Turzai had a key role in crafting. It passed the House and a substantially changed version was pending in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said Monday the only way a transportation funding bill would pass is if Corbett publicly breaks any link between it and wine and liquor legislation.

“Until then, I think it’s being held hostage by the House Republicans,” Costa said.