House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), one of the lead negotiators in the effort to reach an agreement on transportation funding, said Tuesday that legislative leaders would be continuing discussions over the next few weeks, and hope to map out a proposal that could be voted on by mid-November.
In doing so, Smith backed away from earlier assertions that transportation talks will die on the legislative vine if a deal is not reached this week.
Asked whether he was optimistic about talks going forward, Smith said: "I can't answer that. I honestly can't."
That is because there is still a deep divide between Republicans and Democrats in the House over a GOP demand that any transportation funding deal include changes to the state's prevailing wage laws for transportation projects. Those laws require contractors on state-funded construction projects costing more than $25,000 to pay specific wages for various jobs. The wages are set by the state Department of Labor and Industry and are generally tied to those in the area's organized labor contracts.
House Republicans have long argued that prevailing-wage laws drive up the costs of construction projects and that the wages set do not always coincide with local wages, particularly in rural communities. They want to raise the $25,000 threshold, a standard set more than 50 years ago. Another change the GOP is pushing is to exempt routine maintenance projects, such as minor resurfacing projects and curb repairs, from prevailing wage.
House Democrats have balked at such proposals: "House Democrats don't see any reason to tamper with that law," said spokesman Bill Patton.
But Smith on Tuesday made his stance clear on prevailing wage: "If that is not a part of [the deal], then I'm not a part of it."
Transportation funding is one of Gov. Corbett's top policy priorities, particularly as he eyes a reelection campaign next year. And the GOP-controlled legislature has been under pressure for months to resolve its differences because of the potential consequences of not doing so.
Without additional funding, bridges in disrepair are likely to be weight-restricted, mass-transit systems, such as SEPTA, will have to scale back projects, and deteriorating roadways will make smooth and safe travel difficult for motorists.
Copyright 2013 - The Philadelphia Inquirer