HARRISBURG — With the legislative session’s gas tank approaching empty, Republicans and Democrats battled gridlock in the state House on Monday before they finally put their foot on the brakes and failed to approve a $2.3 billion transportation funding bill.
Many Democrats spoke out against a prevailing wage threshold increase and some Republicans said that a gas tax increase would unfairly be passed along to motorists in the form of additional pain at the pump, but in the end, after hours of debate, the sides couldn’t muster enough votes to send the bill on to the state Senate. The vote was 103 against, 98 in favor.
The 9:50 p.m. vote came more than nine hours after Republican Gov. Tom Corbett held an afternoon rally in the Capitol Rotunda, where he and numerous elected officials, business leaders and union leaders gathered to urge action on the bill before the legislative session ends next week.
Corbett has made transportation funding a top priority this fall, but House leaders had struggled since the Senate’s June 5 passage of a $2.5 billion plan to come to a consensus.
“Pennsylvanians can wait no longer to be assured their bridges will be safe and remain open, their highways will remain smooth, and their transit systems will be kept in place,” Corbett said at the rally, which was also attended by former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. “No action on the compromise plan that all sides have hammered out in the last few weeks is not acceptable. Pennsylvania will suffer in many ways if this opportunity passes.”
Prevailing wage has been one of the wedge issues that has kept a deal from being voted on, as some Republicans have insisted any transportation funding bill include an increase to the project cost threshold before a prevailing wage would kick in. Currently it’s $25,000, but some Republicans wanted to see that raised to $100,000.
Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, said the matter is “a fair discussion to be had, but I don’t think it should be linked to a transportation bill. The Senate didn’t.” Speaker after speaker Monday night echoed the same sentiments saying a transportation bill should not be tied to a wage issue.
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, was among a number of Democrats who stood to speak up against the prevailing wage change and said he couldn’t support a bill that included it. He urged colleagues to reject the bill and 101 of them did.
That addition to the bill was viewed by one Democratic senator as an unneeded sticking point for what he called “a straightforward” plan.
“The only purpose for linking them is to divide opinion and to foment polarization on what is otherwise a straightforward consensus: that our roads and bridges and our mass transit systems are in poor condition, woefully underinvested and a threat to both public safety and the economic vitality of the commonwealth,” said Sen. John Blake, D-Archbald.
An amendment, authored by Rep. Nick Micozzie, R-Upper Darby Township, included that change and other funding mechanisms including increasing gas taxes and a host of motorist fees to eventually generate at least $2.3 billion a year.
A plan by Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, closely mirrored the Republican version but did not include the prevailing wage increase. Both plans would eliminate the state’s 12-cent-a-gallon flat tax on gasoline, but replace that revenue by increasing the wholesale tax on gasoline.
The wholesale tax, known as the oil company franchise tax, would generate new revenues by being applied to the full price of gas. It will be an additional nickle annually over a five-year period. The cost would likely be borne by consumers.
That tax was used as a rallying cry by some Republicans, including Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, who called the bill “the Corbett gas tax increase” and urged colleagues to not support the plan.
A third proposal, offered by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, called for a more measured $1 billion in additional transportation funds.
The debate was limited to the Micozzie amendment as the Hanna plan was not permitted to move to the floor, and the Turzai plan was dead on arrival.
Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Pittsburgh, said “There is no Democratic support for the Turzai alternative.”
Patton said “Reps. Nick Micozzie and Mike Hanna are both offering the bipartisan consensus language that came out of the discussion among legislative leaders during the last couple of weeks. This would raise up to $2.4 billion for transportation programs by the fifth year through uncapping the oil company franchise tax and raising a number of vehicle and driver-related fees.”
Even with pressure being applied by Corbett and the approved House bill, the possibility exists that no funding plan will be approved this year unless the Senate takes action. And if that happens, it will likely mean at least another year of inaction as the governor, all House members and half the senators spend 2014 focused on reelection campaigns.
“We have waited decades for action on a comprehensive transportation plan,” Corbett said. “This week, we need action that delivers final votes on a comprehensive plan to address our crumbling roads, weakening bridges and failing transit systems.”
“If we do nothing we have a recipe for disaster,” said Micozzie, who added that a lack of action this year could mean the state will go another five years or more without the much-needed funding. It’s been 15 years since a comprehensive transportation funding plan was approved in the state.
Only one local representative voted in favor of the bill, Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca. State representatives Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Twp., Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Twp., Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, all voted against it.