Taking Pennsylvania for a Ride

Nearly three years ago, the Commonwealth Foundation joined a loose coalition of groups that spanned the political and ideological spectrum. Common Cause, Democracy Rising PA, RockTheCapital.org, Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, the League of Women Voters, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, and a few others decided to set aside their policy differences to embark on a collaborative effort to promote more open, transparent, and accountable state government.

The impetus was the backroom deal which conceived and gave birth to Act 71 of 2004—the slots bill. Frustrated with a legislative process that too frequently puts special interests far ahead of the people’s interests, our organizations recognized that if Pennsylvania wanted sound public policy based on facts and rigorous debate, the policymaking process in Harrisburg would have to be reformed.

Unfortunately, the backroom deals continue.

Recently, Gov. Rendell and the General Assembly helped another special interest steal from the people of Pennsylvania. The exact amount of the heist will probably never be fully known, but taxpayers’ and commuters’ wallets will be looted for decades because of a transportation funding bill (Act 44 of 2007) that was thrust upon citizens with zero input from the general public, affected constituencies, or interested parties.

Only the special interests that stand to benefit financially—the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and its friends—were at the backroom table making the deal. There were no policy hearings, no committee meetings, and no public discussions with lawmakers—just a handshake by legislative leaders and Gov. Rendell to approve the turnpike’s multi-billion-dollar plan.

In short, Act 44 is legislation of, by, and for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The deal is a product of the Turnpike Commission and its patrons, by the Turnpike Commission and its lobbyists, and for the Turnpike Commission and its bond attorneys. These politically-connected and selected firms and attorneys stand to make tens to hundreds of millions of dollars from this backroom deal, money that will come straight out of residents’ pockets.

Why was there the rush to push through such a critical and far-reaching piece of legislation? Waiting a few months would not have hindered the proposal’s timetable. Toll increases on the turnpike and future tolls on Interstate 80 are not scheduled to go into effect until 2009, and bonds for immediate revenue could be issued later this fiscal year. If the Turnpike Commission’s legislation is the best transportation policy for the commonwealth, it could have withstood the public scrutiny it would have received over the coming months.

Other major problems exist with Act 44, as well. The proposal’s entire funding mechanism is based upon the premise of charging tolls on I-80. The Federal Highway Administration has stated that the federal government would not likely approve tolls there to pay for other roads or mass transit. What is Plan B if the Highway Administration prohibits the tolls? The answer: There is none.

Finally, the tax increase on drivers using the turnpike and I-80 to subsidize mass transit systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh is in conflict with the strong recommendation from Gov. Rendell’s Transportation Funding and Reform Commission. It stated in its November 2006 final report: “The Commission concludes that no additional funding should be provided for highways, bridges and transit unless a series of parallel actions are taken to reform funding structure and a number of transportation business practices” (emphasis added).

What significant reforms have been enacted to merit additional funding to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars more? None. Yet, by subsidizing the current system without significant reforms in operations, management, and labor, Act 44 only postpones the current financial crisis for another day; it does not solve it.

In a time when the public is demanding more open, transparent, and accountable government, Harrisburg should have ended the backroom deals crafted by lobbyists for special interests. Unfortunately, Gov. Rendell and the General Assembly didn’t—and that’s why the Turnpike Commission will be taking Pennsylvania for a ride for decades to come.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president & CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), a public policy research and educational institute located in Harrisburg.