Meadville Tribune

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Opinion

July 7, 2014

Quiet fixes to festering problems tucked into budget bills

Despite intense lobbying from Gov. Tom Corbett, the Legislature failed to act last week on pension reform.

Legislative leaders pledge to revisit the issue in the fall, which will make for interesting times if lawmakers are confronting the highly-controversial topic weeks before facing voters in the election.

The pensions and Philadelphia’s $2 tax on a pack of cigarettes to raise money for schools dominated discussion this past week at the Capitol. That gave lawmakers cover to use budget-related bills to quietly solve problems they’ve encountered in the past year.

Some we knew about. Some we’re learning about after the fact.

For example, legislation awaiting Senate final approval includes $5 million obliquely directed to the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate. What do they need the money for? To pay for parking around the Capitol for lawmakers and staff, caucus spokesmen confirmed.

(The parking earmark is described so abstractly that a tipster who alerted me wondered if it was “walking-around money.” Almost. It’s more like parking change — and lots of it.)

This was all news to me. But some of the other matters ironed out in the budget and its companion bills tackled well-documented problems.

Here are three examples of lawmakers’ efforts to tidy up. Two are answers to unintended problems. In the third, the endgame has yet to be played.

Remember the idea of establishing a rural community college in northwestern Pennsylvania? Maybe not, unless you live in the area north of Interstate 80 and west of Williamsport, which is the only corner of the state lacking a community college.

The area does have some well-placed lawmakers at the Capitol, however, notably Sen. President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati. So, there’s $1.2 million earmarked for it a community college.

In another effort to smooth out a wrinkle, lawmakers quietly lowered the application fee for taverns to allow patrons to participate in small games of chance.

By decreasing the fee from $2,000 to $500, lawmakers hope to entice more taverns into the program.

When tavern gaming was legalized, state officials estimated that 2,000 bars would sign up — and generate $150 million for the state in application fees and gambling revenue.

Instead, six months later, 23 taverns, including one in Crawford County, have gotten licenses, Liquor Control Board spokeswoman Stacy Kriedeman said Thursday. Unless something improves, that $150 million will be somewhere south of $2 million.

Time will tell if the carrot of a smaller application fee spurs more taverns to offer gaming.

Finally, the state Senate tried to close a loophole that cost millions when lawmakers accidentally gave banks a big tax break.

About this time last year, the Legislature made a tax change it thought would help some banks, hurt others, but overall be a wash for the state.

Instead, more banks found it a help, and the state took a bath.

A Senate analysis found closing the loophole will save the commonwealth $40 million. But the House deleted that clause before leaving town for the summer.

The Senate returns today to consider whether to accept the House’s edit.

“We’ll have a caucus discussion about the House amendments (today), after which we will determine a course of action,” Senate GOP spokesman Erik Arneson said Thursday.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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