New Castle News

April 16, 2013

Plan unveiled to spend liquor system money

John Finnerty
CNHI

CNHI — A group of Republican lawmakers have unveiled a plan to use the money from selling off the liquor system to pay for road and bridge work.

Proponents said the plan would demonstrate the state is using every available dollar to pay for highway repairs before asking drivers to absorb a gas tax increase. But Republican lawmakers also made it clear they are in no hurry to give school districts a short-term financial windfall.

Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York County, said that when school districts were provided federal stimulus funding, they were warned the money was temporary. But after the stimulus funding dried up, the teachers union and other school advocacy groups criticized Gov. Tom Corbett and Republicans for providing less money to schools. With that experience as a precedent, there is little incentive for lawmakers to approve another short-term infusion of cash for schools, Saylor said.

Spending the money on highway construction would also be a way to use government money to support private sector jobs, Saylor said.

“We don’t need more teachers and firefighters” on public payroll, Saylor said.

Corbett has maintained that the money from dismantling the liquor monopoly should go to a grant program for schools.

“The governor had a good idea, but I have a better idea,” said Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill County, who authored the bill.

Republicans point to the precedent of stimulus funding to argue that the state was burned once by offering an infusion of cash to schools. Lawmakers also said that every available dollar ought to go toward roadwork if the state is considering a tax plan that increases prices at the gas pump.

Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, pointed to emails from members of the teachers union and political ads attacking Gov. Tom Corbett. Roae quoted from emails suggesting Corbett was using students and schools as “pawns.”

“If the teachers don’t want the money, we shouldn’t give it to them,” Roae said. “No one at PennDOT has said, ‘We don’t want the money.’”

John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, Senate transportation committee chair, is scheduled to unveil the legislation that would spell out how the state could pay for the governor’s transportation plan.

Corbett’s transportation plan would lift a cap on a tax on the wholesale price of oil. Analysts have suggested this would increase the price of gas by 28 cents, said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler County.

But even with the tax increase, Corbett’s transportation funding plan would not generate enough revenue to meet the $2.5 billion a year in needs identified by a state task force. Corbett's plan would generate $1.8 billion a year by the end of five years, once the tax increase is fully phased-in.

The liquor sale is expected to generate up to $1 billion in up-front money as the state sells liquor retail and wholesale licenses. That money could close some of the gap between Corbett’s plan and the funding task force’s recommendation.

Lawmakers said they have heard little support for using the liquor proceeds for schools. The public also is dubious about having to absorb a tax increase to pay for road and bridge repair, they said.

“I will have a difficult time considering anything else unless this becomes law,” Knowles said. “To me, this a no-brainer.”

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)