The future of transportation funding — including more than $80 million in road and bridge projects for Luzerne County — hung in the balance Monday as state House Republicans wrangled over amendments to pare down a $2.5 billion annual plan passed by their Senate counterparts.
The House Transportation Committee was scheduled to vote on the amendment at a meeting Monday morning, but its chairman, Dick Hess, R-Bedford, called for a last-minute recess to permit changes.
The $2.5 billion Senate Bill 1 passed the upper house by a 45-5 bipartisan vote on June 5.
In addition to differences over how much to funnel into highway work, legislators also have been grappling with how to fund the state's mass transit systems, from large metropolitan networks in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to smaller local bus operations such as the Luzerne County Transportation Authority.
“If the Hess amendment does get through, it will hurt us. It will hurt every transit system in Pennsylvania,” said Stanley Strelish, executive director of the Luzerne County Transportation Authority.
That is because House Republicans, notably including Hess, have spoken out against proposed increases in license, registration and other driver fees approved by the Senate, as well as a proposed $100 surcharge on traffic violations to generate transit funding.
Increase local match?
Under the House amendment, the local match for state transit funding would increase from 15 to 20 percent, while local governments also would be authorized to to impose their own taxes to bolster transit funding.
Strelish said funding transit by imposing more taxes at the county level would not be politically feasible, “especially in Luzerne County.”
The status of highway projects under the House proposals also seemed uncertain Monday.
According to documents provided by the state Department of Transportation, the June 5 Senate bill included eight infrastructure projects in Luzerne County worth $83.5 million, including such big-ticket items as $26 million for replacing Interstate 81 bridges in Dorrance Township and nearly $24 million to reconstruct the Sans Souci Parkway in Hanover Township.
While it was clear that the House plan would dedicate less money to road and bridge projects, an itemized list of what might get funded under the pending House amendments was not available.
Indeed, the final form of those amendments was not known Monday, as debate swirled over what led to the delay.
“The reality, in my opinion, is that House Republicans obviously didn't have the votes,” said state Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, who sits on the Transportation Committee.
Eric Bugaile, executive director of the committee, told The Times Leader the recess was required to make technical corrections and other changes to the 110-page amendment document.
Bugaile declined comment on whether political considerations prompted the delay.
But The Associated Press reported that Republicans also acknowledged they needed more time for caucus members to discuss the measure, prompting questions about whether supporters lacked the necessary votes to win committee approval.
“Obviously, this is an issue that's important to a cross-section of legislators,” House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said.
Differences over transit, in particular, did not surprise one veteran observer of the state's political scene.
“Republicans historically have been for roads and bridges, Democrats have historically been for mass transit,” said G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
“Usually they will find an accommodation,” Madonna said.
What makes the battle over this bill different from the norm, Madonna suggested, was the widening gap not just between House Republicans and their Senate counterparts, but between the party and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who supported a much more comprehensive funding package even than that approved by the Senate.
Ideology factors in
Despite polling data suggesting that voters are broadly in favor of increased transportation funding, Madonna believes ideology may play a role. House Republicans elected following the rise to prominence of Tea Party fiscal conservatism have shown significant resistance to raising taxes, fees or spending in many areas, Madonna said, in contrast with more pragmatic GOP members in the Senate.
“There are deep divisions there, in the ranks of Republicans,” Madonna said. “The House is more conservative than the Senate.”
Senators and House Democrats showed their dismay with the proposed amendment. In speeches on the chamber floor, the Senate's two Transportation Committee chairmen reminded House members that Pennsylvania has a duty to ensure the safety of its roads and to help further commerce.
“Let's not lose sight of what we need to do,” said Cambria County Sen. John Wozniak, the committee's ranking Democrat.
The Associated Press contributed to this report..