It was bumper to bumper on the stage at a Capitol news conference for the announcement of a Senate transportation funding plan.
It has been much anticipated, and it was heavily attended as lawmakers and stakeholders crowded like rush hour on the Schuylkill Expressway.
Transportation chair John Rafferty (R-Berks/Chester/Montgomery) said his plan was more than two years in the making. It would raise and additional $2.5 billion for roads, bridges, mass transit, airports and ports across Pennsylvania.
According to a spokesman, Senate Bill 1 is still being drafted and won't be officially introduced for a few weeks, but the highlights are this:
- It would uncap the Oil Company Franchise Tax over three years (this is a tax that was capped in 1983 and only taxes the first $1.25/gallon even though the price is now three times higher);
- Increase the cost of a drivers license from the current $29.50 for four years, to $50.50 for six years;
- Increase car registration from the current $36 per year, to $104 for two years; and
- Add a $100 surcharge to the fine for most moving violations.
Uncapping the tax will be controversial, and it will increase the price at the pump.
"This is not going to be an easy political decision," said Senator John Wozniak (D-Cambria), who supports the plan. "Already people are saying it'll be 25 cents, 28 cents a gallon more."
Wozniak pointed out that gas in Johnstown was $3.69/gallon but only $3.39/gallon in Carlisle yesterday, a 30-cent fluctuation within the state. His point is that taxes alone do not determine price at the pump.
Rafferty calls additional funding a safety issue and says Pennsylvanians should feel good that the money will only be spent on transportation.
"This money's all being used for that core function of government," Rafferty said. "It's not going to the black hole of the general appropriations budget."
Rafferty's plan is more aggressive than a transportation plan released by Governor Tom Corbett earlier this year. While the governor isn't endorsing Rafferty's plan, his transportation secretary was on the stage at the news conference and applauds the attempt. Barry Schoch also appreciates that there's now a legislative plan to discuss.
"If you ask most people, I think they'd say we should take care of our roads and bridges and mass transit," Schoch said. "Do we need to invest more? Most people would say 'yes'. Do you want to pay more? Uh, you know, nobody wants to pay more for anything."
Conservative groups, never fans of government spending, aren't convinced there aren't additional dollars hiding somewhere in the Capitol that could be spent on transportation without the hikes.
"It's one thing to ask drivers to just pay more at the pump, to pay more in fees, to pay more in fines, when you're wasting dollars elsewhere within state government," said Nathan Benefield of the Commonwealth Foundation.
There are political speed bumps as well, mostly in the House. Transportation Chair Dick Hess (R-Bedford) says newer conservative members promised constituents they wouldn't raise taxes under any circumstances. To them, he has some explaining to do.
"They are not going to vote for anything because they think it's a tax increase," Hess said. "Well, it is a tax increase but nothing's for nothing. You've gotta pay to play, so to speak, and to me I always look at it as a user's fee. If you don't use it, you're not paying that much in a gas tax."
Hess says he'll try to convince resistant lawmakers by showing them exactly how many construction projects will come to their districts if the plan passes.
PennDOT spent $7 billion on roads, bridges, mass transit, airports and ports last year. Rafferty's plan hopes to generate an additional $2.5 billion. Rafferty said he hopes it can pass in June but said it's not specifically tied to the budget.
Whispers suggest that House Republican leaders want a liquor privatization plan before raising transportation taxes and fees. On Tuesday, several GOP representatives said they want profits from the sale of liquor stores plowed into roads and bridges prior to any tax hikes.