Suicide Pact: Pennsylvania Republicans Ready $2.5 Billion Tax Increase

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is expected to approve a transportation funding bill today that will levy tax and fee increases on Pennsylvanians totaling $2.5 billion by 2019.

The taxes and fees will be increased incrementally over the coming five years, so motorists will pay increasing totals amounting to an additional $7 billion before the state reaches its annual funding goal of $2.5 billion in 2019.

The funding has been pushed hard by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who when he signs the bill will renege on his biggest 2010 campaign pledge of “no new taxes and no new fees.” Corbett announced his bid for reelection two weeks ago on a campaign theme of “Promises Kept.”

The proposal was thought to be dead Monday night after the House of Representatives turned down the funding proposal — twice. Through legislative sleights-of-hand, however, House Republican leadership brought the identical plan back Tuesday night and it was approved after six lawmakers who had voted against the plan flipped their votes to approve the measure.

The lawmakers who changed their votes were: Republicans Karen Boback (Columbia), Seth Grove (York), Stan Saylor (York), Michael Peifer (Monroe) and Democrats Mike Sturla (Lancaster) and Nick Kotik (Allegheny). Media Tracker calls to all six, seeking the reasons for their changes of heart, went unreturned. A major lobbying effort on lawmakers was put forth by Corbett, special interest groups, and a large segment of the business community after the Monday failure of the proposal.

The House votes, however, proved to be a test vote to show the Republican-controlled state Senate the votes were available, so the Senate would pass an identical measure. The House can concur with the Senate bill Thursday, so it can go directly to Corbett for his signature before the House adjourns to Dec. 3. The Senate passed the measure 43-7.

Under the tax plan, the state gasoline tax will increase a little over five cents per gallon per year to about 28 additional cents per gallon, while diesel fuel taxes will increase by 39 cents per gallon over the same period . The fees and taxes associated with virtually any driving activity — tires, automobile sales taxes, license, registration and permit fees, traffic violations, and a bevy of other costs — will all be increased next year and then, indexed for inflation, and then increased every two years into the future.

The bill also gives the state the option to raise the speed limit on state highways from 65 to 70 miles per hour and eliminates a small registration date tag currently affixed to state license plates.

“I want to thank the taxpayers, because you are going to be paying for it, whether you want to or not,” said state Senator John Wozniak (D-Cambria) in floor remarks Wednesday.

Corbett, his department of transportation (PennDOT), the highway and construction industries, and labor unions have been pushing for the measure as a way to repair the state’s decaying bridges and roads, fund mass transit, and create jobs. The number of jobs to be created was imprecise, with House and Senator supporters claiming at various times, 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 and “tens of thousands.”

Ultimately, when $2.5 billion annually is coming in on top of the $6.8 billion PennDOT is receiving this year, $1.7 billion will be for road and bridge repair, $487 million will go to mass transit (predominantly in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), and $147 million will be set aside for multi-modal transportation such as trains, ships, and — yes — bicycles.

Conservatives in both the House and Senate argued loudly against what state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) has branded the “Corbett Gasoline Tax” and questioned  if roads and bridges are unsafe why PennDOT is not directing its current funding toward fixing them. Republicans and Democrats have unabashedly labeled the measure a “massive, multi-billion dollar tax increase” that has to be enacted.

State Senator John Rafferty (R-Chester), who created a similar transportation bill earlier this year that passed the Senate 45-5, but died in the House, praised House Speaker Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) as being “a leader who was instrumental in getting this done.”