Pa. legislators return to face a familiar agenda

Posted: September 25, 2013

HARRISBURG - Same issues, different season.

The Pennsylvania legislature returned to the Capitol on Monday after a nearly three-month-long summer break, with an agenda that closely mirrors the one it set at the start of the year: finding funding for roads and bridges, reining in the rapidly rising cost of public employee pensions, and privatizing the state-run wine and liquor stores.

All three have topped Gov. Corbett's list of policy priorities, yet the GOP-controlled House and Senate have been unable to strike a compromise on any. Lawmakers broke for the summer in exasperation after months of negotiations fell apart at the eleventh hour, and left Harrisburg with little more than a state budget to show for their work.

The stakes are high. Corbett's job approval ratings continue to drop, and he faces a tough reelection campaign next year. His top advisers have privately said a legislative win on some, if not all, of his policy priorities is critical.

On Monday, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said his chamber would consider a $2.5 billion transportation funding plan that overwhelmingly passed the Senate in June - though he has repeatedly criticized it as too costly.

The Senate's transportation plan would allocate more than the $1.8 billion Corbett had proposed. Like the governor's plan, it would lift the cap on the oil-franchise tax to raise revenue, and reduce the per-gallon flat tax at the pump by two cents a gallon. But it would also increase driver's license and vehicle-registration fees, and put a hefty surcharge on speeders and others who violate traffic laws.

"I think we need an up-or-down vote," Turzai said Monday, but quickly noted that he personally supports a plan that would spend closer to $600 million.

He added: "We have a governor who is advocating for this. It's a governor from our party. He wants that opportunity, and we have to work with him. Now, do I think every Republican is going to support that? I do not. Everybody's always known that. . . . But we are about moving forward, and people have to have an opportunity to be heard on this particular issue."

Less certain is the fate of liquor privatization. The issue is important to Turzai, who has aggressively pushed over the last two years to sell off the State Stores. The Senate has been less enthusiastic, although the chamber was poised in the waning days of June to approve a scaled-back privatization measure.

Turzai noted that the House has already passed a privatization bill, and that the Senate now holds the cards.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said Monday there were "no immediate plans" to tackle a privatization bill, but "we've got months between now and the end of the year."

As for changes to public employee pensions, Turzai reiterated Monday what legislative leaders have been saying for months: They are considering bills to move all new employees into 401(k)-style plans. The governor has advocated for more aggressive changes that would bring in bigger savings. They include reducing future pension benefits for current employees by changing the way those benefits are calculated, and reducing the annual amount the state is required to contribute to its two retirement funds.

But many in the legislature believe Corbett's proposal is legally risky, and have made no secret that they have no intention of voting on his full plan.

Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

comments powered by Disqus