2011-04-07 / Local & State

Selling His Budget, Corbett Takes Aim At Rendell

By Peter Jackson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – As they step up efforts to sell Tom Corbett’s costslashing, no-new taxes budget plan to a wary Legislature, the new governor and his team are increasingly pinning blame for Pennsylvania’s fiscal problems on former Gov. Ed Rendell – even if the facts are not always on their side.

Last week, Corbett criticized his Democratic predecessor for using temporary federal stimulus money to sustain increases in public education funding, although it was openly debated and approved by the Legislature. He accused him of not doing enough to fix ailing bridges, despite Rendell’s authorization of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in additional funding. And a Corbett Cabinet nominee accused the previous administration of mismanaging the socialservices safety net without offering solid evidence to back up the charge.

“Gov. Corbett is trying to pass a deeply unpopular budget that raises local property taxes and college tuition while giving the gas drillers and corporate interests a huge break – and he’s getting desperate,” said Ian Rosenblum, a former policy aide to Rendell.

The Republican governor promised in his campaign not to raise state taxes or fees if elected, despite bipartisan projections of a multibillion dollar shortfall in tax collections as the stimulus money dries up in the year that starts July 1.

Opposition to Corbett’s proposed education cuts – $1 billion for public schools and $625 million for universities, the largest reduction for higher education advocated by any governor this year – has been making headlines ever since his March 8 budget address.

School districts are threatening massive layoffs and the elimination of kindergarten, arts and other programs. In Harrisburg, hundreds of students and faculty members from the 14 state- owned universities staged a protest rally on the front steps of the Capitol.

Speaking at a meeting of county commissioners in Harrisburg, Corbett said the federal money kept basic education funding on an upward trend since 2008 even though the state’s share declined – “an illusion,” he called it. Corbett wants to return basic funding to the 2008 level, which he contends is technically an increase.

“We increased the state share of funding that the previous administration had cut,” he said. “We have actually increased it; we just didn’t use Washington money that we didn’t have.”

Corbett expanded on the point a few days later in a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation garage where het announced plans to sell what he described as the embodiment of “everything wrong with state government” – a donated 20- year-old motor coach that was a holdover from the Rendell administration.

Corbett said Rendell should have used the stimulus money to repair more of Pennsylvania’s thousands of deficient bridges instead of giving it to schools,

“Obviously, Gov. Rendell’s priority was education. ... He didn’t do transportation,” he said. “Well, as a result we have a crisis in the bridges right now.’”

“We make our choices,” he added. “If I would have had the stimulus money, I would have put it into bridges.”

Asked to respond, Rendell said the federal money came with strings attached.

“We had to use the education money for education. We had to use the bridge and road money for infrastructure for bridges and roads, and the mass transit money for mass transit, the energy money for energy,” he said in a conference call with reporters on another topic.

Rendell defended his track record on transportation, pointing to a 2007 law that calls for annual increases in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls to generate $450 million a year for highway and bridge work. In 2008, he earmarked $200 million a year in borrowing to accelerate bridge repairs – an expenditure that Corbett’s budget would maintain.

“I’m not certain what Gov. Corbett thinks we should have done in addition to that,” Rendell said.

At a legislative hearing, Public Welfare secretarynominee Gary Alexander charged that the rising cost of social services he has vowed to rein in is partly the result of mismanagement by the prior administration. Alexander, who held a similar job in Rhode Island until January, alleged that case workers adhered to a philosophy of “when in doubt, give it out’’ when it came to applicants’ eligibility.

That drew a pointed denial from former Rendell aides, who said a federal audit of Pennsylvania’s programs showed low error rates and that case workers were well-trained to weed out fraudulent applications.

Rendell, whose annual showdowns with legislative Republicans prevented any budget from being passed on time during his eight-year tenure, said he has no desire to argue with his successor.

“I have respect for him because he is doing exactly what he said to the voters during the campaign he would do,” Rendell said, “and he deserves (an) abundant amount of credit for that.’’

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