(I'd note - and cynics will enjoy this - many of those quizzed begged for time. Almost no one answered quickly. A few said "tax and spend" or "I don't know." One invoked Dwight Eisenhower's famous line when asked what Richard Nixon did as vice president: "Give me a week and I'll think of something.")
* CHIP (the Children's Health Insurance Program):
It's maybe the best thing the state does, and we were first in the nation to do it. Enacted in 1992 by the late Gov. Bob Casey, expanded in '07 under former Gov. Ed Rendell, it provides health insurance for all children and teens to age 19.
The coverage is free for uninsured kids in lower-income families who don't qualify for Medical Assistance. It's available at low cost for everyone else.
It's run by the state Insurance Department along with health insurers statewide. There's no waiting list; 194,130 kids are enrolled; 26,052 in Philly. It was the model for a national program passed by Congress in '07. How many things from Pennsylvania get copied by other states or the feds? Parent satisfaction is 90 percent. How many government services get rated as highly?
* STATE PARKS:
Our parks hold best-in-the-nation honors from the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Park Association.
The state runs 117 parks covering 225,000 acres - at least one within 25 miles of every resident. A dozen are in the Philly region. Benjamin Rush State Park, off Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philly, is slated for $2.7 million in development, including three miles of biking/hiking trails, restrooms and parking.
Statewide, the system gets 38 million visits a year for camping, fishing, hiking, biking, boating and more. Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County has whitewater rafting. Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County is a designated "Dark Sky Park" and rated among the best places in the eastern U.S. for stargazing (nothing near it with artificial light).
The parks are so popular (sort of the Washington Monument of the state) that they get used as negotiating chips in tough budget years, and actually were closed for one day during one of Rendell's (many) budget battles.
Yeah, PennDOT can be a pain: bad roads, bad bridges, miles of highway cones protecting nothing. But anyone who remembers what it used to be like to get your license photo taken can tell you that this now is something done well. PennDOT has 97 facilities processing 3.1 million photos a year.
You used to have to take a week's vacation and deal with lines and surly bureaucrats. Now you get fast and (mostly) courteous service, a rare taste of government efficiency. The expansion/change began under former Gov. Tom Ridge in the late '90s, part of what Ridge called "making state government more customer-focused."
PennDOT customers rate service statewide, on a scale of 1 to 5 - with 5 being "very courteous" - at 4.6. And 96 percent say they were served within 30 minutes.
* FARM SHOW (promoting agriculture):
Pennsylvania is the second-most-rural state (behind Texas), with 2.8 million rural residents, and because agriculture is the state's official No. 1 industry, the state promotes it well.
The annual Farm Show each January in Harrisburg features 6,000 animals, 10,000 exhibits, tons of food and the maybe the best possible political taste of the state. Last year, 400,000 people attended.
It's the largest indoor show of its kind in America. It costs $2.4 million to stage and generates $25 million in economic impact in a 40-mile radius of the complex.
It has everything growing, flying or walking around farmland, a half-ton butter sculpture and a food court that could feed a small nation. It's a well-run, unique event that every Pennsylvanian should see. And it's free.
The 105-year-old state Capitol is one of the most beautiful public buildings in America, a designated National Historic Landmark. To replicate it would cost $2 billion.
In 1982, the Capitol Preservation Committee was created to restore it, an effort spearheaded by the late House Speaker Matt Ryan. The committee restored magnificent murals; 23.75 karat gold leaf; hand-crafted Moravian mosaic-tile flooring; Carrara (Italy) marble stairs and statues, and much more.
It won tons of architectural, preservation and restoration awards for the work. The committee's annual budget these days is about $1.8 million, mostly spent on preservation efforts. But Capitol tours are free; everyone should see the beauty that tax dollars can buy.
Final thoughts: Before you fire off that angry email about worthy, overlooked programs or projects, this is not an all-inclusive list; before you question paying for gold-leaf splendor in public buildings, this is not a list of government priorities. This is a list of things that government does well.
And given this list, maybe we should gather the folks running CHIP, State Parks, Farm Show, photo ID and Capitol preservation and put them in charge of everything else.
For recent columns, go to
philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.