Investment in education tops Rendell's list of accomplishments as governor

Rendell talks with reporters. Of spending, he said, "Yes, I spent money, and I paid for it with savings."
Rendell talks with reporters. Of spending, he said, "Yes, I spent money, and I paid for it with savings."
Posted: January 07, 2011

HARRISBURG - Looking back on his eight years leading the nation's sixth-largest state, Gov. Rendell says he is most proud of the investments in education made under his administration, but wishes he had never signed the ill-fated 2005 legislative pay raise.

"I was too easily persuaded to do it because I was told that unless I did it, we wouldn't get legislative cooperation for the remaining time" in office, Rendell said of the raise that increased the salaries of lawmakers as much as 54 percent, and also boosted pay for judges and the executive branch.

"I shouldn't have done it."

The raise drew public outcry and legislators repealed it later in 2005 - but voters nonetheless sacked 24 incumbents in the 2006 election.

In a conference room near the governor's suite, sitting below a mural of William Penn, Rendell reflected Thursday on his two often-tumultuous terms in office. They were terms marked by budgets often delayed by months by bitter debate with Republicans, who controlled one or both of the legislative chambers during Rendell's tenure.

All in all, Rendell said, he believes his time in office has been a success. "We have achieved a great deal of the progressive agenda set forth in the 2002 campaign," he said before ticking off his list of accomplishments.

Among those were investments that modernized school classrooms, reduced class sizes, improved test scores, and gave more children access to full-day kindergarten.

He said the billions in economic development pumped into small towns and large cities across the state, coupled with the introduction of slots gambling in 2006, helped keep Pennsylvania's unemployment rate and deficit comparably lower than other large states'.

He bemoaned the fact that the state share of public education funding never reached the 50 percent he set as a goal in 2002, although it did jump from the low-30-percent range to somewhere in the mid-40-percent range.

Rendell noted successful efforts to expand health coverage for low-income children and adults, and the reduction of rates of hospital-acquired infections and the expansion of prescription drug coverage for seniors.

He said he had no regrets about being remembered for bringing statewide gambling to Pennsylvania, which started as a plan to put slot machines at five racetracks and ballooned to establishing licenses for 14 casinos with thousands of slots machines and table games.

"Thousands of people are working because of it, and it's helped the horse industry," Rendell said.

Rendell said he was disappointed about the increasing volume of partisanship in government, but added, without prompting, that he was proud that, in a Capitol that has a "culture of corruption," his administration remained unscathed.

"Not one member of the Rendell administration was arrested or indicted during their service in the administration," he said.

When questions were raised about areas where there was lack of transparency - particularly as it related to economic development grants - and no-bid contracts, Rendell said they were necessary for the "effectiveness and efficiency of the operations of government."

"If there was anything sinister, it would have been indictable," he said. "And believe me, there were people who would have loved to indict us."

To critics who accuse him of being a spendthrift - Spendell was his unflattering nickname - he pointed to federal mandates and increased costs in Medicaid and corrections that drove the spending higher.

But he maintained that he reduced government operations spending by shrinking the size of the state workforce, through attrition and layoffs, and cutting agency budgets across the board.

"Yes, I spent money, and I paid for it with savings," he said.

Rendell proudly noted he was responsible for the second-largest income-tax increase in recent state history in 2003, yet was reelected by 21 percentage points over his Republican opponent in 2006.

"There is good government spending and bad government spending," he said. "You try to find spending that's wasteful and purely political, and spending that may have good intentions but is not doing anything, and cut off the money."

In his waning days, Rendell said he was still working to secure a state loan to help the financially embattled Tasty Baking Co. "stay on its feet."

Rendell said he was leaving politics for good on Jan. 18 when Gov.-elect Tom Corbett, a Republican, takes office.

"I'm through," he said.

Asked what he would miss most, he did not hesitate.

"The ability to affect lives," he said, "sometimes one person at a time, sometimes 12 million."

Rendell, who turned 67 on Wednesday, said he would return to Philadelphia looking forward to finishing his memoirs, continuing to teach at the University of Pennsylvanai, and his regular gig on the Eagles postgame show on Comcast Sports Network.

He expects to make speeches and will do consulting work with several law firms. With the help of the William Morris Agency, he is seeking a part-time role as a television news pundit.

Rendell says he plans to leave his successor a handwritten note. One piece of advice to Corbett: "Live like you are a one-term governor. Do what you believe in and don't worry about the political consequences."


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

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