Scarnati hoping for stability in Pa.
By Joseph Bell
According to State Senator Joe Scarnati (R-Brockway), the Commonwealth has come a long way in the past few years but significant additional progress must still be made.
As the governor's budget will be released in early February, Scarnati said legislators have created "a tough budget cycle" as they've been "advocating for more funding for our public schools."
Because of this, and other factors, finding the dollars to completely fund the spending plan has been a tall task.
"We can't deficit spend so what our revenues are are certified by the budget secretary, that's what you have to spend and that's it," he said. "We have to be fiscally responsible and I believe we can cut some of these costs."
Liquor privatization throughout the state has been a key topic in recent years. In fact, a bill was passed in the spring that would begin selling off the state's Wine and Spirits stores; however, GOP opposition blocked the legislation. The Senate countered with a bill designed to move the government away from retail and instead lease wholesale operations but it was never voted on.
If privatization would pass, license sales could possibly contribute money to the general fund.
"I would love to be able to see this year the legislature and governor get their act together and get at least some aspect of liquor in grocery stores," Scarnati said. "I think the consumers want it and I think we can do it, although maybe not in one major sweeping bill. We've been talking about it for two years and I think there is a way to at least get wine in grocery stores.
"That's an incremental step but I think it's the least that we can do, and at the same time we help our local wineries. We have great industry here and we can help them, and slowly get consumers more options."
Corporations, wineries, beer distributors and trade groups last year spent thousands of dollars lobbying for liquor privatization. Walmart and Target, among others, indicated their chains would sell liquor if privatization became law.
"Pennsylvania is an incremental state, things just go slowly but I think there are a lot of side effects that we don't know of that could occur in rural areas such as accessibility and affordability for liquor if it's not done right," Scarnati said. "What I do know is that we need to start somewhere, and I want to start and I want it this year. We need to figure it out in a way that we don't compromise our beer distributors or industry here, which includes Straub Brewery and our restaurants that sell alcohol. "We don't want to put them out of business, people that have been here for decades and it's not our business to legislate people out of business."
Scarnati's family had a restaurant liquor license for 75 years and they invested in that license just as a beer distributor or restaurant does now.
"There were only two liquor licenses in Brockway, now would it be fair for the state to come in and say there's going to be 10?" Scarnati said. "Does that devalue my business?… and what does that do to my investment and my loan with the bank? There are considerations that have to be made as we move through this.
"I think the people who own the bars, taverns and beer distributors, I don't think they should be put out of business by any process and I think we can enhance the value of their licenses if we do it right."
While the wine stays off the grocery store shelves for now, transportation made a big move at the end of 2013 with the passing of an unprecedented comprehensive package which will bring much-needed additional investment to Pennsylvania's transportation system.
For 2014, estimated figures show $186 million devoted to state roads and bridges; by the fifth year of the comprehensive transportation funding plan (Act 89), that figure is expected to climb to $1.3 billion. Public transportation will see $59 million, and roughly half a billon dollars in 2019. Pa. Turnpike expansion projects will be funded $12 million in 2014, and that figure is expected to climb to as much as $86 million by the fifth year of the plan. The multimodal fund will jump from $30 million in 2014 to $144 million by 2019.
Total funding for 2014 will be roughly $321 million; the total funding for the five-year plan hovers around $2.3-$2.4 billion.
The plan eliminates the state retail gas tax (12 cents) paid at the pump, effective Jan. 1, 2014, replacing it with an equivalent increase in the Oil Company Franchise Tax (OCFT), charged at the wholesale level.
"I know where gas prices are and what they are, and the gas companies have done a wonderful job of selling to the market," Scarnati said. "You can go between here, DuBois and Brookville and you can find a 10 to 15 cent disparity in gas prices. Now we have the five years that the cap is being taken off, so whether or not they want to pass all that on in some markets or not in some, that’s the gas companies."
The fact that the Commonwealth has the highest number of structurally deficient bridges in the nation was pushed to the forefront as legislators fought for a transportation package, and Scarnati said the issues were getting worse.
"PennDOT began to put weight restrictions on many bridges around here, and that causes trouble for the timber industry— they were really hurting over this— and they were assessing those companies fees to fix the roads, and that had never been done before," Scarnati said. "PennDOT was going down to collect any dollar that they could and if we wouldn’t get a transportation bill in place, it would have a horrific effect on this local economy. In several of our communities, we have one or two bridges going in and out, and a weight limit on one of those bridges, you hurt goods going in and goods going out. There is a new weight restriction on a bridge on [state Route] 219 north of Brockway.
"I voted to do the responsible thing as a core responsibility of government is providing safe, adequate infrastructure. If you really look at the Constitution, we really don’t have a lot of responsibilities: our focuses are education, public safety, infrastructure, those are our responsibilities. I’m not so sure it’s our responsibility to sell lottery games so when I look at what we needed to do, I didn’t go to Harrisburg to make the easy votes, I went there to do the responsible things, and I think it was a responsible thing to do. I think in the long run Pennsylvania will be much better off and well-served with safer roads and bridges, and access to our communities so we can work."
Counties and municipalities receive proportionally the same investment from the OCFT increase, replacing the retail gas tax as they receive today from the 12-cent gas tax.
The bill also will provide an additional $220 million a year in liquid fuels allocations statewide for locally owned roads and bridges by the fifth year, a more than 60-percent increase over current allocations to local governments.
"I think this goes back to when Rendell was governor and he was trying to get a package through, and he couldn’t get it through," Scarnati said. "Corbett started working on this three years ago when he got elected but we have more and more legislators going to Harrisburg for one purpose, and that is to get re-elected."
And attitudes like that, he said, are killing Harrisburg.
"It’s easiest to be against everything and I can find a reason to vote against every bill that goes through the Senate. But if I’m opposed to a bill, I find a reason to make the bill so that I can vote for it, that’s the whole point in offering amendments," Scarnati said. "I offer amendments all the time because maybe there are bills written that could hurt rural areas and many are taken into account in that it will have a different effect in Chester County versus Jefferson and Elk Counties. I’ve never believed in compromising your principles whether it be pro-life, pro-guns, but to just go and be opposed to everything then come back and celebrate that, that shows me you just want re-elected, and I think we’re getting more and more of that.
"There’s a gridlock on everything in Washington, and I refuse to be part of a gridlock in Harrisburg. Compromise isn’t a bad word and I’ll look for compromise on any issue as long as it doesn’t sacrifice my principles."