Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget address included an array of strategies intended to confront a transportation funding crisis, provide additional money for education and get the state out of the liquor business.
However, all three of those moves have aspects that may give some lawmakers pause.
“It’s going to be a challenging few months,” said Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican from Lycoming County.
Beyond those hot-button issues though, there is reason for optimism, as lawmakers said the state government’s budget is in a much more healthy position now than it had been at similar points in Corbett’s first two years in office.
The governor’s strategy of connecting education funding to liquor privatization is “disingenuous,” said Sen. John Wozniak, a Democrat from Cambria County.
“On the good side, we aren’t in a deficit situation,” Wozniak said.
Under the governor’s liquor privatization plan, $200 million a year from the sale of licenses to operate retail stores selling wine, liquor and beer would be made available to schools for use on safety, boosting elementary education funding, developing individualized learning plans, and bolstering science, technology, engineering and math programs.
Most lawmakers suggested transportation funding may be the most likely to be addressed, simply because the need to act is so great.
Transportation funding affects everyone, “Whether you’re on a school bus, driving a feed truck or going to work,” said Sen. Elder Vogel, a Republican from Beaver County.
Corbett noted the average age of a bridge in Pennsylvania is 51 years, while the life expectancy of a bridge is more like 30 to 40 years.
If the state does not take steps to repair some of the 4,774 structurally deficient bridges in the commonwealth, “we’re going to have a bridge collapse and then they’ll hang us all,” Vogel said.
The senator said he does not object to increased funding for mass transit, as long as that funding is equitably divided among the public transit agencies around the state.
Vogel said he would also like to see the state use some of the $250 million in additional funding for mass transit to help bus fleets convert to natural gas as a fuel.
The state desperately needs to deal with its transportation funding crisis, Vogel said, noting there are too many bridges with weight limits on them.
In the House, Republican lawmakers largely put off making any judgments about the budget, saying they need more information.
Rep. Greg Lucas said the full budget is roughly the size of a phone book.
Rep. Brad Roae called it a “solid starting point. Both men are Republicans from Crawford County,
“I am committed to fiscal responsibility, eliminating unnecessary spending and cutting government waste,” Roae said.
“From that perspective, some of the governor’s proposals are very appealing.”
House Democrats had more to say.
Lawrence County’s two Democratic state legislators oppose Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposal to remove the cap on the wholesale gasoline tax.
“I don’t think it’s a really good idea at this point,” Rep. Chris Sainato of Union Township said.
From what he has read, Sainato said, lifting the cap will cause gas prices at the pump to increase by 20 cents a gallon.
Corbett’s proposal would increase the wholesale gasoline tax by 28.5 cents per gallon to 47.7 cents. Motorists currently pay 32.3 cents per gallon in state taxes.
Noting motorists are paying almost $4 a gallon now, Sainato said such an increase would hit “people in rural areas the most” because they drive longer distances. A lot of it is work-related, he said.
Other options need to be explored to fund the state’s transportation needs, he added.
Rep. Jaret Gibbons of Franklin Township commented, “Contrary to what the governor says, it is a tax increase.”
Gibbons said he believes there are other alternatives, such as issuance of bonds and tolling of certain roads.
He added Corbett’s proposal would hurt the overall economy.
Sainato said former Gov. Ed Rendell made a similar proposal, but legislators rejected it. Gibbons said Rendell’s idea was replaced with the proposal to toll Interstate 80. The federal government ultimately denied the state’s application to convert I-80 to a toll road.
Rep. Gary Haluska, a Democrat from Cambria County, said he is infuriated by Corbett’s privatization initiatives — first targeting the lottery, then the liquor system.
“This guy is unbelievable,” Haluska said. “He is dismantling Pennsylvania, piece by piece.”
Haluska said the transportation plan only generates half of what Corbett’s own transportation funding commission suggested was needed.
(New Castle News reporter John K. Manna contributed to this story.)