John Baer | Guv not likely to blink 1st in budget face-off

Posted: July 03, 2007

OK, LET'S SAY Gov. Ed and the Legislature get through the July 4 holiday and the rest of the week without agreeing on a new budget or SEPTA help, which was due last Saturday (what a surprise!).

Let's say that means on Monday we start laying off 26,000 or so "nonessential" state workers (don't you wonder that if they're "nonessential," why we have them anyway?), shut down some offices and services, maybe casinos, which means lost revenue up to $2.6 million a day.

In other words, let's say we have a real mess with real costs, not just the usual playground tug-of-words.

Who in the big-picture politics of Pennsylvania do you think gets blamed for the mess?

I'll give you a choice.

The Legislature: the largest, most-expensive body of its kind in the country; a body known for its thieving pay grab (a sin whose two-year anniversary is publicly celebrated this week by grass-roots reform groups); a body known for excessive, possibly illegal, bonuses to its staff, abuse of public dollars for self-promotion and overall avarice and greed?

Or the governor: also known as the governor of Philadelphia to whom nothing, I mean nothing, sticks, not speeding or advocating speeding, not massive mismanagement in snowstorms dangerously stranding hundreds if not thousands, not tax increases, not any of the crazy things he says, not even signing that fat pay grab into law?

Legislature? Governor?

Well, since Ed Rendell built a long career dancing and ducking around and through the perils of politics at state, local and national levels, and since he was easily reelected last year and doesn't have to face voters again, and since leaders of the opposition in this standoff are in their first year of power, new to the game, I'm inclined to think the edge is with Ed.

"He's the governor, he absolutely holds the political edge," says GOP House spokesman Steve Miskin, who never agrees with me about anything.

(I'm leaving out the part in which Miskin adds that Ed has this edge because media don't hold him accountable. That's nuts. Media report the guv's foibles and quirks with relish. Have for years. Only seems to enhance his overall positive image.)

The thing Republican leaders, well-meaning in efforts to curtail state spending and hold down taxes, apparently fail to understand is that Rendell is what marketing folks call "branded."

No matter what he says or does, he remains the guy who saved a city, who finds ways to keep trains running, who ends strikes and fights trouble, a full-of-life fellow who loves food, fun and the Eagles.

Lawmakers are "branded," too. They are amorphous beings in a discredited class, easy targets for broad-brush definition, a whole subject to the faults of a few, with a reputation as more responsive to special interests than citizens.

As the impasse unfolds - with Republicans pushing a no-new-taxes modest budget and Rendell holding out for new spending in energy, health care, transit and more - think about the big picture and precedent.

Rendell tempts lawmakers to test his mettle. He recently made reference to sitting out a 40-day SEPTA strike as mayor in '98.

Anyone who understands big-city transit strikes knows this is the equivalent of saying, "What can you guys possibly do to me?"

So as lawmakers complain, as GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati did yesterday, that Rendell's willing to "make crisis, threats, bully, scare, intimidate" to get what he wants because he's gotten away with such tactics in the past, remember this: He's gotten away with such tactics in the past.

Which isn't to say Rendell's right. Protracted budget battles leading to even partial government shutdown reflect inefficiency and shallow leadership in the governor's office, as well as the Legislature.

Both should share blame. I just don't think both will. *

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