ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: High drama in the House
HARRISBURG - The passage of a $2.3 billion comprehensive state transportation package last week was not without its moment of high drama.
That came on Monday night when the House by a close 103-98 vote initially rejected a key amendment that contained what eventually became the final plan. Within 24 hours, enough House lawmakers switched their votes to carry the amendment by a 104-95 vote and that provided the breakthrough that ultimately led to final passage.
The unusual thing about Monday's vote is that the four House caucus leaders and whips of both parties voted "no" despite the lobbying efforts of Gov. Tom Corbett and former Gov. Ed Rendell earlier that day to resolve an issue that has lingered for months.
Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh; Majority Whip Stan Saylor, R-94, Red Lion; Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-33, Allegheny County; and Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D-76, Lock Haven; voted against the amendment.
The next day, Mr. Saylor made the motion to take another vote on the amendment. He and several others switched to yes and handed Mr. Corbett a major victory for a program that will repair crumbling bridges and roads but also place new costs on motorists
What's unique about this episode is that normally the caucus leaders and the whips round up the votes from rank-and-file members to pass key legislation that reflects agreements negotiated among the governor and House and Senate.
And traditionally, the caucus leaders and whips are the ones to fall on their sword and vote for the "compromise" piece, however controversial that may be, so that a freshman lawmaker or someone politically vulnerable can cast a politically safer no vote.
For various reasons, this scenario didn't play out in the House that first night.
Mr. Turzai had for several months publicly said the transportation package was too pricey for him. He favored a much smaller proposal addressing "critical needs" instead.
So House Speaker Sam Smith, R-66, Punxsutawney, and two lower ranking members of the majority leadership, Reps. Dave Reed, R-62, Indiana, and Mike Vereb, R-150, Collegeville, took on the job of selling the proposal to their GOP colleagues.
For Mr. Saylor, his deliberations over the two days were affected by a personal tragedy.
Mr. Saylor's initial "no" vote was shaped by his general opposition to hiking taxes. But he said the recent death of his brother in a traffic accident weighed on his mind. He said some roads in York County are so narrow in spots that cars and school buses have trouble passing each other. And those concerns along with prospects for more economic activity from transportation projects prompted his switch.
On the Democratic side, Mr. Dermody was part of the negotiations to produce the $2.3 billion plan. But that agreement didn't cover changes to the prevailing wage law which House GOP leaders put in the amendment, said Dermody spokesman Bill Patton.
A provision to increase the cost threshold from $25,000 to $100,000 when prevailing wages based on area union-scale wages paid to workers on local transportation projects is in the bill.
Mr. Hanna proposed an amendment to implement the plan without the prevailing wage changes, but it wasn't voted upon.
Including prevailing wage put Mr. Dermody and Mr. Hanna in the no column on the amendment.
As often happens, when all the debate was over and the final rollcall taken at week's end, Mr. Turzai, Mr. Saylor and Mr. Hanna voted for the bill. Mr. Dermody remained opposed.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.