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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Transportation funding becomes major issue in state House fight

Posted By on Wed, Apr 16, 2014 at 10:48 AM

In recent days, State Rep. Erin Molchany's bid to remain in Harrisburg has received boosts from a handful of progressive allies: She's been endorsed by the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, the Gertrude Stein Political Club, and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. But if she wants to beat fellow incumbent Democrat Harry Readshaw, whose district she's been drawn into, she'll need to do well with the kind of voters who attended a debate in the South Side Slopes last night. That won't be quite so easy -- and her differences with Readshaw on a state transportation-funding law may be a deciding issue.

Molchany currently represents the 22nd House district, which was drawn out of existence after the 2010 Census. She is now running to represent a redrawn 36th district, long the preserve of Carrick native Harry Readshaw.

Readshaw, who has run uncontested for 9 of his 10 terms as state representative, seemed wary about last night's debate at St. Paul's Retreat Center: "I know there's a lot of loaded questions" waiting, he said as he introduced himself. Indeed, when an audience member later asked whether he would step aside for a "younger, fresher" candidate, Readshaw tartly observed "I'm so happy this isn't a loaded question." But based on response to that line and a few others, this was mostly a Readshaw crowd. And while the candidates took few direct shots at each other, the state's 2013 transportation-funding law reflected " a pretty clear contrast," as Molchany herself put it.

The funding plan will allow the state to spend more than $2 billion a year on road improvements and mass transit; it's funded with an increase in a tax on gasoline wholesalers and fee increases for services like vehicle registration and driver's license renewals. Assuming that wholesalers pass along the cost of the tax increase to drivers, some estimates are that the fees will cost drivers an average of $22 this year, rising to $132 by 2018.

Readshaw voted against the measure. As he told City Paper in January, he preferred to raise money from taxing natural gas drilled in the Marcellus Shale. He reiterated that point last night: "We have a golden opportunity with the Marcellus Shale," he said. And Democrats, he contended, had a chance to take advantage of that opportunity during the transportation debate. Although Republicans control both houses of the legislature, Readshaw noted, they were having difficulty corralling support from anti-tax absolutists in their own ranks. Democratic support was necessary to pass a transportation bill, and Readshaw says Dems should have leveraged that position better. "We should have dictated: … 'We're not taxing the people of the Commonwealth.' … We missed our opportunity." Readshaw also warned that fuel-tax hikes could result in school districts raising taxes to cover increased bus costs.

Molchany voted for the transportation plan. While she said she, too, would have preferred a solution like taxing natural gas, "We were negotiating from the low ground," and a tax on gas drilling was never a possibility in Tom Corbett's Pennsylvania. (Corbett himself has long championed the industry.) Her district, she noted, relied heavily on the county's light-rail system as well as the 51 bus, the most heavily used route in the Port Authority system. "I had to vote to support those assets ... to make sure everyone could get to work," she said. (Indeed, Port Authority has claimed that thanks to the plan, the agency will not be in "cut mode" anytime soon.)

The issue seems likely to remain a focus of the campaign. In his campaign's first TV advertisement, Readshaw notes his opposition to "Governor Corbett's massive gas tax," which the ad claims "funds Philadelphia's mass transit." The ad makes no mention of the fact that the legislation will also benefit local transit, or road improvements anywhere else.

The candidates discussed a range of other issues last night, including the ongoing UPMC/Highmark battle and government solutions for blight. But other than transportation, the sharpest difference between Molchany and Readshaw seemed to concern gender and equity issues. "I think we differ when it comes to conversations about equality," said Molchany, who later touted her own support of legislation ensuring men and women earned the same pay for the same work. "It's 2014, and we're trying to get equal pay for equal work," she said. The issue, she added, "hasn't been at the forefront" in Harrisburg, where women make up fewer than one-fifth of legislators.

Molchany herself is the only female legislator representing Allegheny County; if Readshaw wins, the number of local females serving in Harrisburg will drop to zero. But Readshaw made no apologies for seeking to hold onto his seat. "I don't think somebody should just be a winner because of race, color or creed," he said. If we wanted more female officeholders, he added, "More ladies, more women, should run for public office."

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