HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania state House of Representatives salvaged a major transportation spending proposal and approved it in a key vote Tuesday night, a day after the same measure was narrowly defeated amid concerns over the size of its tax increase and provisions to roll back wage requirements on some highway projects.
The House's 106-95 vote, after months of struggling with a bill, was a test of support for the Republican-sponsored measure that is backed by Gov. Tom Corbett, but has been criticized by conservatives as the second-largest tax increase in Pennsylvania's history.
The proposal would raise gasoline taxes and numerous motorist fees to provide more than $2.3 billion a year for roads, bridges and mass transit systems. It was defeated, 103-98, on Monday night, spurring Corbett's office and House Republican leaders to regroup Tuesday and seek out wavering lawmakers.
In the end, House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, and the Corbett administration were able to stitch together support from Republican moderates and urban Democrats whose districts are heavily served by mass transit.
Considerable pressure was on the House, since the heavily lobbied transportation legislation promises billions of dollars for the transportation industry and it was a top priority of Corbett's, Senate leaders and business and labor groups.
The Senate, which passed a similar measure in early June, was expected to take it up Wednesday, with another final vote necessary in the House. However, Senate leaders gave no promises that a key provision demanded by Smith - to exempt more transportation projects from labor union-supported requirements that set minimum wages - would win support there.
Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch said passage in the coming days would ensure that the new money starts funding work in the spring in a state where roughly 20 percent of the state-maintained bridges and highways are classified as being in need of repair and mass transit agencies routinely battle deficits to maintain services.
The vote came after a day of hustling to speak to House members and answer questions. Schoch estimated that he spoke with about one-third of the state's 200-plus lawmakers Tuesday.
"I think after last night, they walked away from it and realized they didn't pass a transportation bill, and they realized ... they wanted to pass a transportation bill, and they didn't want to be seen as unable to get it out of their house," Schoch said.
Smith said House lawmakers wanted to differentiate themselves from a gridlocked Congress and he also credited Schoch's discussions with lawmakers. Lawmakers became more familiar with the impact the money would have in their district and Schoch might have been able to persuade some lawmakers by ensuring a higher priority would be given to a transportation project in their district, Smith said.
"For people to change their minds, they must have had something that made them more comfortable," Smith said.
Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said he changed his vote after House Republican leaders gave him assurances the Senate would back the wage provision and they would change the bill to more quickly relieve the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's burden to spend $450 million on other transportation needs.
Gas taxes could go up by as much as 28.5 cents per gallon at the pump, based on the average wholesale price in use for 2013, while drivers would pay more for licenses, registration and some traffic violations.
The proposed increase is nearly 50 percent of the $5.3 billion that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is scheduled to spend this year on highways, bridges and transit. Proponents say the plan would protect public safety and give the state's economy a big boost by updating taxes and fees to reflect inflation after going unchanged since at least the 1990s.