John Baer: Rendell and lawmakers try to pull a fast one, but we aren't that stupid

The late U.S. Rep. John Murtha
The late U.S. Rep. John Murtha
Posted: July 12, 2010

TOO MANY OF those long in power think the rest of us are stupid.

Take Gov. Rendell (please). His defense for pouring public money into new facilities honoring fellow longtime pols - the late Johnstown Rep. Jack Murtha and Ed's old boss/buddy Arlen Specter - is that the projects are terrific job-creators to make our economy hum.

He said this with a straight face.

The implication is that in the entirety of Pennsylvania, at a time the state is slashing services, there aren't two other multimillion-dollar job-creating projects that better benefit more citizens.

We're asked to believe that a Murtha public-policy center in Johnstown and a Specter library in Philadelphia were selected on merit in the highest interest of the people.

Is anyone that stupid?

Ed's other defense is the money's borrowed and doesn't come from the General Fund. The implication is it's free.

We're expected to believe that annual debt service and fees for borrowed money paid back out of the General Fund somehow doesn't count.

It does. Debt service and fees are among "mandated" costs Rendell often points to as reason for required cuts in, for an ironic example, public-library funding.

The Murtha/Specter projects surfaced in a capital-budget list released late on Friday of the July Fourth weekend (proving that some traditions endure), each authorized at $10 million. The administration notes that the Specter library is scaled back, so state share is reduced. This is like saying (since it's not their money) $10 million, $2 million, yeah, whatever.

There's no defense for these going-away gifts from a governor known for giving gifts - with other people's money.

Perhaps you recall $40 million to Philly-based Comcast in Ed's first term. He's paid by Comcast as a football analyst. His forever adviser David L. Cohen is a Comcast vice president. And we're asked to believe that the monster cable company (it bought NBC last December for $13.7 billion in cash and assets) would leave its hometown starving if it didn't get a slice of the public pie.

Puh-leeze.

The money mechanism in question, the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP), requires matching funds and runs mostly as a reimbursement system. It's a largely hidden tool for pols to promote themselves, show they have clout and fudge the constitutional requirement for a balanced state budget.

It's in addition to millions of dollars in "walking-around money" for other pet projects. It's available for just about anything that meets the criterion of carrying "significant potential" for improved economic growth. And, boy, does it grow.

It began a decade ago with a debt limit of $400 million. The limit's been raised seven times, five under Rendell. It's now $4.05 billion, a tenfold increase.

The year before Rendell took office, its debt service - the annual cost of paying back borrowed money - was $80 million. Today, according to data from the governor's office, it's $250 million.

This new expansion, agreed to by the Republican Senate and the Democratic House, lifts the borrowing cap by $600 million. It could push payback costs close to $300 million a year and cost us $1 billion over 20 years.

Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma says "probably more than half" the annual payment is for pre-Ed projects. Remember the $700 million borrowed for pro sports stadiums under Gov. Tom Ridge?

But debt is debt, and it's expanding, and taxpayers foot the bill.

Of the new $600 million, lawmakers get $302 million and Ed gets $298 million. But only the governor has power to release funds. And you know what they say about power. Two dozen counties have authorized projects. All have one or two, except Philadelphia. It has 13, including $15 million for a former Tasty Baking Co. facility at Fox Street and Roberts Avenue, bordering Nicetown and East Falls; $10 million for a hotel at 4th & Race; and the Specter library. The total is $97.3 million. Wonder why Ed's called the "Governor of Philadelphia"?

RACP is largely a wish list, which makes one wonder about time, paperwork and legal fees wasted and how much of this is just political show. The Guv's office says most projects never happen. Let's hope Murtha/Specter get counted in that number. Nothing wrong with honoring decades of service; just use private, not public dollars.

RACP funds some good stuff. But it's also a piƱata of pork that any governor can bust open any time, raining down more debt and payments that rob the General Fund of resources meant for the general good.

So maybe we shouldn't keep building debt. Or maybe RACP projects should be subject to public review before authorization. Then maybe we might believe that our money is used to create jobs and make the economy hum.

Or is that kind of thinking just stupid?

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/baer.

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