2009-10-29 / Features

2010 Governor’s Election A Referendum On Rendell?


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Even his adversaries acknowledge that he’s aggressive.

So it is unsurprising that Gov. Ed Rendell is using up every drop of his time in office to press a busy agenda deep into his second term, even as state government grapples with what the Democrat calls its worst financial shortfall since the Great Depression.

That combination could be acidic for any candidate trying to avoid controversy in a campaign in which all will inevitably be asked their opinions about a governor who has recently navigated thorny issues of taxes and spending.

“Rendell will not only be deeply involved in the race, but the race itself will be about him and his policies,’’ political analysts G. Terry Madonna and Michael L. Young wrote in their regular “Politically Uncorrected’’ column this week.

Rendell, they said, will be the first Pennsylvania governor since 1970s-era Milton Shapp “to have his leadership and his policies the centerpiece of a governor’s contest.’’

There’s a lot to digest from the Rendell years. The Philadelphian has at times battled Republicans and at other times persuaded them to go along with him on school funding, clean energy, containing health care costs, economic development programs and human services.

To be sure, Rendell has failed at times. Republicans have turned back new taxes he sought on tobacco sales, natural gas extraction, oil company profits and electricity use.

He has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to expand the state’s subsidized health insurance program to hundreds of thousands of uninsured adults. His proposal to place video game terminals in bars and taverns to generate money for college tuition grants fell flat in the Legislature. And legislators never warmed to his idea to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company to raise billions to repair creaky bridges and crumbling highways.

In June, he joined top Democratic legislators in calling for an income tax increase to wipe out a multibillion-dollar, recessiondriven budget shortfall. That failed, and he instead accepted a blend of Republican and Democratic proposals, including spending cuts and higher taxes on some businesses.

Still, it took until Oct. 9 – 101 days after the beginning of the fiscal year – for the politically divided Legislature to bridge the partisan divide and get the key budget bills to Rendell’s desk.

Even if his public approval ratings suffered, those extra months of high-profile budget negotiations and partisan recriminations guaranteed Rendell a torrent of headlines and airtime late in his second four-year term. Throughout, he remained a powerful force.

He secured a hefty gain for public schools – nearly $300 million more, a 5.7 percent increase – at a time when overall approved spending dropped. And when legislators tried to maneuver around him, he insisted on and won concessions that he viewed as crucial to helping state government avoid another budget crisis next year.

The three two-term administrations that preceded Rendell faded in energy and ambition in their final years, analysts say.

But next year – Rendell’s last as governor before he reaches the constitutional limit of eight years in office – friends and advisers expect Rendell to haul a packed agenda into the Legislature. After all, he’s known for working late into the night.

“Ed Rendell’s most productive working hours are between midnight and 1:30 a.m.,’’ said David Cohen, who was Rendell’s chief of staff as Philadelphia’s mayor in the 1990s. “For some people it’s the middle of the night. For him, it’s the most productive time of the day.’’

If state government avoids another budget shortfall this year – as Rendell has planned – Cohen said he expects the governor to press his priorities on energy, health care and education, issues over which it is hard to unite Republicans and Democrats even in the best of financial times.

Gubernatorial candidates will likely have to take positions on those issues raised by Rendell. If another budget deficit materializes, the candidates will be forced to sound off on Rendell’s proposals to fix the mess, analysts say.

“I think when it’s all said and done,’’ Madonna said, “they’re all going to have to deal in one way or another with his agenda.’’

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