House stalled on transportation bill
HARRISBURG — A far-reaching bill that would raise taxes to boost spending on Pennsylvania’s transportation system by about $2 billion a year was left in limbo Saturday night as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives adjourned for the day without taking action on the measure.
The surprise adjournment after an hour-long floor session culminated a day of closed-door meetings in the House, which had been expected to begin debating dozens of proposed amendments to the transportation bill, while lobbyists, activists, reporters and a few tourists milled about in the Capitol rotunda through the day.
House Republican leaders acknowledged that they lacked the votes to pass the transportation legislation, but claimed that a majority of GOP caucus members were on board and sought to scold Democrats for not acting in a bipartisan spirit and putting up more votes.
“They’re not returning phone calls. They’re not returning phone calls of our leader,” said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery.
Mike Hanna, the House Democratic whip, said Democrats have tried repeatedly to get their ideas into the chamber’s transportation legislation, but have been rejected. He said Democrats prefer a $2.5 billion alternative that the Senate approved earlier in June with more money for mass transit funding.
“It cannot be a situation where they keep handing their ideas to us and saying, ‘you have to put up votes for this,” the Clinton County lawmaker said.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the House, 111 to 92.
The transportation bill that would phase out a cap on a wholesale tax on motor fuels over five years to help generate a $2 billion annual increase for highways, bridges, mass transit and other transportation programs. The Senate-passed alternative also would increase the oil company franchise tax. Both versions also would increase an assortment of motorist fees and fines.
Corbett, who campaigned on a no-new-taxes pledge, opened the door to increasing the wholesale tax by making it the centerpiece of the $1.8 billion plan he advanced in February. Senate leaders have made transportation funding a top priority, but a consensus in the more conservative House has been elusive.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans worked into the wee hours of Saturday morning to win a key vote on a bill to privatize wine and liquor sales over Democratic objections, but whether it was enough to win over House leaders who favored a more aggressive approach remained unclear. The bill remained in the Senate on Saturday night.
The Senate bill would retain state ownership of the lucrative wholesale business of shipping liquor and wine, but allow the state’s 1,100 retail beer distributors to buy permits to sell wine and liquor and allow certain other food stores to buy permits to sell wine.
The two issues are indirectly linked: Senate Republicans have made a transportation bill a top priority while House GOP leaders helped lead efforts to privatize the state-controlled liquor and wine system. Several Republican senators said some support for the wine and liquor plan was driven by a desire to encourage House passage of a transportation funding bill.
The Senate also may advance legislation to potentially expand Medicaid eligibility to hundreds of thousands of adult Pennsylvanians under the 2010 federal health care law. The bill won strong approval from Senate committees on Friday and Saturday nights, even though support for it is uncertain from Corbett and potentially hostile House Republican leaders.
Republicans have all but abandoned efforts to pass legislation sought by Corbett that makes major changes to public employee pension laws.
Also circulating were proposals that would increase business tax deductions, allow small games of chance at bars and help Corbett make a legal case to Attorney General Kathleen Kane for his contract to hire a British company to manage the $3.5 billion Pennsylvania Lottery.