Return of the Unablers

Posted: November 12, 2013

THE "UNABLERS" (unable to deal with liquor, pensions, property taxes, oh, you know the list) are due back in the Capitol tomorrow to see what they're unable to deal with now.

This after a two-week break for elections in which they weren't running.

And guess what?

With just 10 session days left this year, there's renewed talk of finally dealing with failing infrastructure and underfunded mass transit.

How high's your confidence level?

Talk's gone on for years: Fix the infrastructure. It's a must. It's an economic issue. It's a matter of public safety. It's a top agenda item for the governor.

Yet where are we?

In 2010, the same year Tom Corbett was elected, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a national report card on states.

We did not do well. Not on roads. Not on bridges. Not on mass transit.

Ride SEPTA? Our transit systems drew a "D-minus" - with a note.

"Unless a new long-term solution is found, transit-system users throughout the state will face significant service reductions, fare increases and reduced mobility, especially senior citizens and persons with disabilities," the report said.

That's just one example. There are multiple studies and warnings.

In July, the Reason Foundation's 20th Annual Highway Report ranked us 39th. In August, PennDOT announced new or lower weight limits on 1,000 bridges. And SEPTA plans to start eliminating some commuter-rail lines next year.

Those we trust to deal with these problems? They're busy talking.

The four legislative caucuses are talking about a $2.3 billion bill that includes nearly $500 million for mass transit, most of which goes to SEPTA.

They'd fund it largely with higher taxes on wholesale gas, expected to get passed on to consumers.

This isn't new. The Republican Senate passed a similar $2.5 billion plan in June, but it's stuck in the Republican House.

Why?

Many no-tax, anti-urban Republicans are "no" votes. So the bill needs a GOP sweetener. How to get conservatives to back more spending and mass transit?

Republican Speaker Sam Smith says he can get such votes if the bill cuts union wages on some state projects.

But that requires Democrats to vote against unions, and Democratic Leader Frank Dermody says, "I don't see that happening."

Notice what's missing? GOP anti-union stuff is here. Democratic allegiance to unions is here. But where are the needs of the state, the safety of citizens?

Oh, I don't know - blatantly ignored?

The bipartisan Senate bill passed 45-5 and didn't include union stuff.

So it's up to the House.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Nick Micozzie, a Republican from Delaware County, sees "around" a 70 percent chance for action, adding: "If we don't do something in a week or so, it's all over. Nobody's gonna vote for a tax increase next year."

That would be an election year. Election years trump actual needs. Ironic, no?

When I ask PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch about this, he says, "I think that's probably true, unfortunately." Although he adds that with all caucuses talking, a compromise is "a lot more real."

Yet, when I ask if GOP Speaker Smith's position on unions remains the same, the answer I get is, "Yes."

And when I ask Democrat Dermody for a percentage chance of action, he says, "That's a tough one."

Meanwhile, Philly Rep. Dwight Evans and Pittsburgh Rep. Jake Wheatley, both Democrats, are offering a compromise bill: slightly less spending, no union wage issues and - because it seems to makes sense - going nowhere.

Bottom line?

Until lawmakers set aside political interests and focus on the broader interests of Pennsylvania, they'll remain unable to reasonably deal with consequential issues.

So this issue reads like another chapter in the saga of "The Unablers."

But, please, go ahead and prove me wrong.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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