In Harrisburg, seven big days ahead

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Corbett’s legacy and whether your state legislator will have a lot of explaining to do

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
UTMikeColLogoBy all accounts, it’s going to be a busy week in Harrisburg — as the state legislature has just a week to get a lot of work done.

Of course, the question is what will get done? And how much Republican-on-Republican political violence will be involved?

Going into this year’s budget season, Gov. Tom Corbett offered three priorities: a transportation bill, liquor privatization and a public pension reform plan. And of course, the budget, which is supposed to be completed by June 30.

The reality is that Corbett, whose polling numbers appear to put him on par with toe fungus in terms of popular support, seems to have little leverage to wrangle his GOP legislative colleagues into buying into his agenda.

With just seven days before that deadline when the legislature packs up and goes home for the summer (pasty white men in bike shorts alert!), the only item that seems a stone, cold lock is the budget. The numbers between the state House and the Senate are close enough that a deal should be done by next weekend.

The next most likely: some scaled-back version of the transportation bill. The $100 surcharge on speeding tickets looks dead (along with the additional funding it would have provided mass transit in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), but it appears that there is a sense that something will emerge this week, although majorly scaled by from the state Senate’s $2.5 billion plan, and, I’m told, cut back from Corbett’s own $1.8 billion plan, which would have raised wholesale gas taxes (and those always get passed at the pump).

Potentially, that could be good news, as a number of road and bridge projects have been stuck in limbo in Chester County and it appears that some of them may finally be funded.

The big question is by how much the House will be willing to raise gas taxes — a very big if. I’m hearing indications that it may be little more than a token hike, and, in the end, a token transportation bill, maybe even less than $500 million, total.

That would be bad news for any number of failing bridges in the county. Clearly, it’s going to take a bridge collapse, and sadly maybe even some deaths, before the state legislature takes any of this seriously.

Odds of something happening: 90% (but likely very watered down, to the point of pointlessness, despite the likely pronouncements of how the state will be so much safer).

As for the liquor bill, while the state house has passed a fairly comprehensive plan that would ultimately close the state stores — the state Senate is balking. Sen. Chuck McIlhinney’s (R-Bucks) embarrassingly bad alternative — which largely keeps the current structure in place with a few cosmetic tweaks — seems to have little support outside of the senator’s immediate family, so it will be interesting to see what the senate comes up with this week.

From here — and from a lot of the people I speak with — the state Senate may be misreading the popular sentiment on this issue. Senators — especially Republican Senators — who fail to support something close to the House bill are going to find themselves with a lot of explaining to do back in the district next week — and potentially a lot of challengers ready for a primary next year.

And frankly — despite the histrionics (I love the TV ads suggesting that privatization will lead to more deaths, a plague of locusts and, maybe even the Kardashians moving to Pennsylvania) — getting this done is so far overdue, it’s laughable.

Odds of something happening: 30%. The differences between the two houses seem far apart and I don’t sense the GOP state house members are going to fold on this one. If the state Senate doesn’t come a lot closer to the House bill, it’s a dead issue for now. Again.

And lastly, on pensions:

Wow, has this been impressively poorly handled by pretty much everyone, Republican and Democrat.

Whether it is when Democratic State Treasurer Rob McCord suggested earlier this month that “pensions aren’t a problem”  to a recent senate proposal that gut the good provisions of Corbett’s proposal (cutting the multiplier, changing the vesting rules) and keeping the part (flat conversion to a 401K plan, which would cut the pension plan off from any further revenue and actually make the funding gap bigger) one has to ask this question:

Can anyone in Harrisburg do math? I’ve reached the point where I think it should be mandatory for every elected official in Harrisburg to take the Keystone Exam and have the scores posted.

I mean seriously, can they? McCord’s statement — aside from being blatant political pandering — is so divorced from the truth and reality so as to be laughable. And this guy wants to be governor?

The state needs to take action and needs to do so, soon. Pension payouts need to be trimmed — in terms of benefits accrued moving forward. And the state needs to find either a one-time lump sum to put into the pension plans, or come up with a time-limited tax (Marcellus Shale?) to help shore up the fund.

But is anything like that on the horizon? Nope.

Expect lots of finger pointing and no action.

Odds of something happening: Deeply into Bret Easton Ellis territory. (For those of you not into overwrought, pretentious 80’s fiction, that’s Less Than Zero).

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