PA's transportation bill raises a few questions


HARRISBURG'S overdue yet largely lauded action on transportation funding raises a few questions.

Does it pave the way for re-election of Gov. Corbett?

Does it bridge divides preventing progress on other big issues?

Is it but a rare instance of our do-nothings proving critics temporally wrong?

Face it, enacting new $2 billion-plus spending for anything does not come naturally to our lawmakers or our governor.

Neither does bipartisanship.

Many Democrats are locked with labor, which took a wage hit on this issue.

Many Republicans are cemented in ideologies that oppose any new spending.

And Corbett famously promised to cut spending and not raise taxes or fees.

Yet look at the bipartisan bill the guv's set to sign into law today.

It offends lots of labor and almost all anti-spenders; pumps hundreds of millions into mass transit, especially SEPTA, over opposition of rural Republicans; and raises fees and (arguably) taxes.

And it should give Corbett a bump in polls.

The new law demonstrates leadership in an area of actual need and is good for the state on many levels.

Whether any Corbett bump vanishes if fees or gas prices go up before voters see road and bridge repairs is an open question.

But that's merely a maybe. It's hard to argue against infrastructure investment.

What about promises broken?

Fellow Republican and state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, of Butler County, calls the bill "the Corbett gas-tax increase," and tea-party types say they'll make it a campaign issue.

It's sensitive stuff, which is why prime proponent Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montco, referred to paying for it not with higher taxes or fees, but with "revenue enhancers."

Meanwhile, the administration claims a wholesale-gas tax hike phased in over five years coupled with elimination of a 12-cent-per-gallon liquid fuels tax merely creates, in the words of PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick, "a wash."

And Corbett's campaign manager, Mike Barley, says the legislation "does not" violate pledges, but provides "historic prevailing-wage reform" and will "save taxpayers money" by making PennDOT more efficient.

The truth?

Who knows what gas prices do over five years? You figure they rise. Motorists fund this bill. And, while I doubt it hurts him, Corbett did vow not to raise fees.

I know this latter item because I asked the fee question while moderating a 2010 debate between candidates Corbett and Dan Onorato.

There are about 150 motor vehicle fees impacted, mostly commercial.

But, cleverly, fees regularly paid by average folk (license and registration) jump only slightly, according to inflation, beginning in 2015 - after Corbett's re-election try, after House and Senate races.

Be grateful you don't haul nonhazardous liquid glue. That fee goes from $800 to $1,061.

What about passage of the law's impact on the Legislature?

I know of no other major measure enacted with three of the four caucus leaders against it.

For different reasons, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody and Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa opposed passage. Only Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi supported it.

(Turzai voted "no" on House passage, then "yes" to concur with the Senate on the same bill, I assume so he could tell his constituents, "I actually voted against it before I voted for it.")

Still, it passed. Is it a template for other tough issues such as pensions and booze?

Apparently not.

An effort to talk with Turzai failed (which tells you something) but Pileggi notes each issue has a "different array of supporters and opponents." He says transportation, as a core-function issue, was able to attract many fiscal conservatives and smaller-government proponents (and many Democrats).

"I don't see that same profile in public pensions or in how we sell liquor," he says. So to answer our questions: Yes, this helps Corbett; no, it doesn't help other issues; and, yes, it's a rarity.