HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania voters no doubt will focus on the top of the ticket Nov. 4, but they also will have to decide a low-profile ballot question: Should the state borrow $400 million to pay for water and sewer improvements?

The bond measure, approved by the legislature in July, would authorize grants and low-interest loans to municipalities to repair sewer and water systems, develop pollution controls, and deal with stormwater runoff.

With many communities grappling with aging drinking-water systems and sewage-treatment facilities - and a $20 billion backlog in maintenance work - there has been widespread support for the bond issue.

But some fiscal conservatives now question the wisdom of borrowing during an economic downturn.

"Clearly there may be some apprehension because of the economic climate," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for the House Republican caucus, "but since this specifically goes toward sewer and water and infrastructure, there is a clear need for resources."

Gov. Rendell is urging support, saying the measure is needed to improve the environment, maintain public health, and create jobs.

"We face challenges because of the economy," he said at a news conference Tuesday. "If all we did was stop spending money, that is not going to get us out of the economic crisis. That would not create one job."

Nathan Benefield of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation said his nonprofit group could not endorse or oppose a ballot question, but he questioned whether the state should go deeper into debt.

"It seems like a more appropriate thing to spend money on, but it comes on top of other things the state is borrowing for, like the soccer stadium in Chester and the new energy plan," he said.

Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo said the new borrowing would likely not affect the state's AA bond rating.

"Pennsylvania is considered a low-debt state by bonding companies, and that is not likely to change significantly," he said.

The state has 2,200 water systems and 1,100 sewage-treatment systems, some of them a century old, according to industry figures.

Judy Schwank, president of the 10,000-member Friends of Pennsylvania, a smart-growth advocacy group, said the bond issue would go a long way toward improving the environment and addressing new federal mandates for water quality.

She encouraged communities to use the money to repair existing systems, not to invite sprawl by building new sewer and water lines in undeveloped areas.

Half the $400 million would go toward grants, and the rest would be issued as low-interest loans. The funding would be administered by the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority.

Read the ballot question at

harrisburg_politics/

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.