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"A very large gas tax proposal"

Published by Karen Langley on .

What's in a name?

If that name includes "tax," the potential for political trouble.

With Republicans controlling the House and the Senate, and a governor who signed Grover Norquist's pledge, there has been real opposition in the Pennsylvania Capitol to anything that could be seen as a tax increase.

But that doesn't mean revenues are in full lock-down, and when changes are discussed, they're discussed with much care. (Remember the "impact fee?")

In an interview this morning, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, was making the case that Gov. Tom Corbett's legislative agenda has made significant progress, even though June 30 has come and gone without pension reform, liquor privatization or transportation funding becoming law.

"There's a lot of good news," he said. "The House on March 21st sent a historic privatization bill to the Senate. On June 4th, the Senate sent a very large -- let me rephrase that -- a very large gas tax proposal for transportation funding."

The legislation in question would raise billions of dollars in new annual revenue for the state's roads, bridges and mass transit systems, in large part by applying a tax paid by fuel distributors -- now assessed on just part of the wholesale price of gas -- to the full gasoline cost.

But talk of it as a tax increase has come from supporters only when they -- like a few of the senators whose chamber voted 45-5 for the bill -- argue that their votes are displays of political courage. More often, references to the transportation bill as a tax increase have been from conservatives explaining their opposition or House Democrats saying that, given the political cost of a tax vote, they need a better bill. 

(Right after his February budget address, Corbett explained the removal of the Oil Company Franchise Tax cap like this: "What we're suggesting is not a new tax, not increasing the tax, but taking the cap off of that and let the market set where we're going with our prices. ... There's an artificial cap. If we believe in a free market system, an artificial cap doesn't work.") 

So ask Turzai moments later about his choice of words, and cue a re-write. The majority leader and his staff took pains to clarify that "a very large gas tax proposal" is not what they call the bill.

" 'Large transportation funding bill' is my phrase," Turzai said. "I would like to make sure that that's clear for the record."

He made clear, too, that he supports the version of transportation funding the House passed out of committee last week.

It's been no secret that House Republicans have struggled to find support for a bill that would raise so much money. The plan they voted out of committee was rejected as too small by Democrats but couldn't attract enough Republican support to move without minority-party votes.

Tax proposal or not, Turzai said the issue is still on its way.

"Things are significantly teed up for the fall," he said. "We believe that the hearings that folks will hold over the summer will allow us to get to closure on these important issues."

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