In the nearly two months since Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled his budget proposal, Harrisburg legislators and newspaper editorial pages have thundered with the battle over liquor privatization.
But, as both parties busied themselves with online alcohol campaigns and convenience-store photo opportunities, some lawmakers and business groups have maneuvered to secure billions of dollars in funds that could affect Pennsylvania for years to come.
Tough decisions on a state transportation bill - one that could pump billions into highways, railroads and ports, as well as the companies that service them - are just weeks away. And it's imperative, supporters say, that lawmakers abandon their squeamishness toward tax hikes if they want to keep the state's infrastructure functional.
The approaching bill has drawn out a broader-than-usual range of supporters, with business leaders and chambers of commerce joining the industries that have long relied on transportation money.
"We can't afford to do nothing," state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, said last week. "This will be the most important vote we make in Pennsylvania for the next 15 years."
In 2011, the governor's office commissioned a study to identify the state's growing transportation funding gap. The study, carried out that summer by the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, showed that a fast-growing $3.5-billion hole stood between state money and its infrastructure needs.
Within 10 years, the report stated, that gap would grow to $7.2 billion. The only solution would be legislative action, the sooner the better.
The 2011 report recommended sweeping changes affecting nearly every aspect of transportation, from longer license-renewal times to hundreds of millions of dollars in highway upkeep.
But PennDOT, still mired in backlogged repairs, didn't have the money to carry out the report's expensive recommendations. It would be some 18 months before Corbett unveiled a concrete transportation plan with a dollar figure attached.
His plan, attached to a budget proposal that stirred statewide debate for its liquor-privatization plan, would raise $1.8 billion over five years by allowing a franchise gas tax to increase. It's substantially less than the $3.5 billion his own study recommended, but legislators have already begun to seek a middle ground.
"I just had a meeting on it this morning," state Sen. John H. Eichelberger, R-Blair, said Wednesday. House Democrats are scheduled to consider transportation funding Monday at a Philadelphia meeting, with the Senate set to form a solid bill in early April.
While the state House of Representatives must technically pass all revenue matters first, senators are set to weigh the options in advance, Eichelberger and Wozniak said.
It's not yet a "now or never" situation, Wozniak said, but if funding isn't secured before the state budget passes this summer, the financial gap would grow by hundreds of millions of dollars.
"This is a game of timing," he said. "We're still gaining revenues, but they're declining."
The issue has drawn the attention of business owners and employers from across the state; where transportation bills usually attract direct participants like organized labor and the construction industry, this one shows promise for a wider audience, Wozniak said.
"Now you have the state Chamber of Commerce, the local chambers of commerce. This is important," he said.
Local businesses rely to some degree on government transport funding, Blair County Chamber of Commerce President Joe Hurd said Friday.
Hurd cited Interstate 99 as an example for business-supporting government road projects.
"There are many who feel that amount [$1.8 billion] is insufficient," Hurd said. "There are an awful lot of tough decisions that need to be made."
Putting money to work
Hurd said business leaders have joined the transportation debate partly through the efforts of the Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition, a statewide advocacy group that includes Amtran, the Tour de 'Toona and the Blair County Chamber of Commerce.
Through the coalition, a broad range of interests - including local construction firms that draw from the largesse of government highway funding - have voiced to legislators the need for a long-term funding bill.
"I think what the Senate's talking about will get us headed in the right direction. ... It really starts closing the gap," said James Van Buren, executive vice president and chief operating officer at New Enterprise Stone & Lime Co. Inc. The company provides materials used in highway work and operates blacktop paving crews, according to its website.
Van Buren said state support would free up the first of five years' funding, allowing companies like New Enterprise to put people to work on long-delayed projects.
"We need to ensure all the local politicians are on board with this," he said. "We need more people doing work."
Some Keystone Transportation Funding Coalition members lobbied for the legislation months before Corbett announced his proposal: During the fall campaign season, the Transportation Construction Industries Political Action Committee, a funding group associated with the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, donated more than $60,000 to state candidates, according to campaign finance reports.
"While transportation funding wasn't a major component of any of the state and national races in Pennsylvania, [the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors'] analysis of the results are actually quite favorable for transportation funding," a post-election update on the industry group's website said.
"In terms of our industry ... there's been a loss of jobs, there's been instability in the highway construction market," Jason Wagner, policy and government relations director for the Associated Pennsylvania Constructors, said last week.
"The sooner, the better," for legislation Wagner said. "Then PennDOT can actually put this money to work. Then we can go and get results."
The state Senate seems poised to reach a bipartisan deal next month, perhaps for even more money than Corbett recommended, Eichelberger and Wozniak said.
Some in the House and Senate transportation committees are considering an extra $1 billion, Wozniak said.
And while a bipartisan bill could breeze through both houses this spring, Wozniak warned that legislators' bravado could erode as the reality of gas-tax increases sets in.
To raise the billions needed, legislators will have to uncap an artificially low Oil Company Franchise tax. Those taxes could be passed on to consumers, leaving some with the impression that it's a direct tax on everyday motorists.
Wozniak said he's concerned that rural representatives in the House could scuttle or rework the bill amid pressure not to raise taxes. He cited the famous "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," a flat refusal to increase any taxes that's signed by 26 state representatives and three state senators - including Eichelberger.
Among those skeptical of any transportation bill is state Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, who said the state's "inefficiencies" have led him to question the value of a gas-tax increase. McGinnis said the proposals would take money from central Pennsylvania taxpayers to bankroll projects in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
"[A proposal sponsor] said he needs 30 to 40 Democrats, because he's going to lose 30 to 40 Republicans. And I guess he's talking about me," he said.
With five years of financial certainty and thousands of transport-related jobs at stake, business leaders hope the Legislature will fight voters' tax fears, Hurd said.
"It may seem selfish from our standpoint to look at issues of employment as closely as we do ... but we really need those jobs to be prominent considerations," he said. "The issue goes well beyond whether the roads are good and bad, whether the bridges are standing up or falling down."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.