Philadelphia Metropolis


Ed Rendell's Final Days

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A Harrisburg friend once divided governors into two categories: the activists and the custodians. Clearly, Ed Rendell was an activist.

Rendell Use This.jpgRendell, who steps down as governor this week, rarely talked about the mechanics of programs. He talked about ideas. In his worldview, government was merely the instrument to make those ideas happen.

They say that you campaign in poetry and govern in prose.  But, Rendell was never prosaic as mayor of Philadelphia or as governor. He was always on some Holy Mission that brought drama to the task: to rescue the city, to help school children, to transform a creaky Rust Belt state, to make Pennsylvania an energy producing state..

Naturally, Rendell was an expansionist. If you like elected officials who believe that the government which governs least governs best, he was not your guy.  In that way, he was very much out of step with most Pennsylvanians, who tend to prefer custodians of government - with names like Casey, Ridge, Thornburgh and Scranton.

Rendell knew that would catch up with him eventually - and it did.  He leaves the governor's office with a low approval rating statewide, buoyed only by his continued popularity in the Philadelphia area.

Rendell knew that he had - at best - four or five years to get done what he wanted to do, and he made the most of it.  First, he raised taxes. Then he proceeded to spend the money it raised on education and economic development, mostly.

It's not true that he gave all the money to Philadelphia, though, Lord knows, we got a generous share.  He gave money to everyone, down to the tiniest municipality, if it could be proven the money would go towards breathing life into its downtown, or luring some new business into the county. He knew that these small towns needed more help than the big cities in attracting jobs and businesses.

When he ran for re-election in 2006 I wrote a piece that was titled: Ed Rendell: The Farmer's Friend. It was a not joke.  During his eight years in office, the state spent nearly $24 billion on projects in the state's 67 counties - roads, bridges, transit, economic development, subsidies for state parks and recreation - a panoply of aid that does not even include aid to education. If you look at how this $24 billion was doled out on a per capita basis most of it went to smaller, rural counties.  You can view a list of the per-capita expenditures here.

When he decided to increase the money the state spent on public education, Philadelphia also was a major beneficiary.  But, smaller districts (especially smaller, rural and poor districts) all got big shares.

In short, Rendell was a policy wonk who had a deep understanding of how government can and should be used to better the lives of its citizens. He embraced the concept of leveraging public dollars to maximize private dollars. And he got the idea, in the way many Democrats do not, that it only private economic development could create prosperity in the state, not government-subsidized programs.

But, policy without politics is masturbation.

Rendell was effective as mayor and governor because he was one of the best politicians the state has ever seen -- a Happy Warrior who got a charge out of public and political life, even (maybe especially) the deal making. He was genuine: what you saw in public was what you got in private. He liked people and he loved the game of politics.

So, he would not only espouse his big ideas, but also enact them by rumbling through  obstacles -- begging, commanding, wheedling, always selling - until he got it done.

A good example is gambling as explained in NJ online gambling sites.

When he wanted to deliver on the promise of lowering property taxes, the deal-making Rendell came to the fore.  The only true way to reduce a tax burden in one place is to increase it in another.  The best way to lower property taxes, then, was a higher state income tax - on the grounds that it is fairer to tax income than the value of a house you have no intention of selling. But the idea of higher state taxes was taboo to legislative Republicans, then as now anti-tax cultists.

The answer? Create a brand new industry called casino gambling, charge millions for the licenses, demand a big share of the profits, and use the money gained to reduce property taxes. It was plan with moral hazard, but it is not the first time a government has taken a vice and made it, if not a virtue, at least a steady source of income.

Rendell's touch was not the idea itself - it had been kicking around for years  as a way of helping failing horserace tracks - but the scale of it.  Instead of having a one or two casinos in remote locales that yield a few millions, why not have more than a dozen and make a billion?

It was a big idea and Rendell loved big ideas. And he was able to sell it to the legislators because it offered money for free.

It was this affinity for the deal that made Rendell suspect with many voters, who prefer purity of motive over achievement of results. Republicans came to hate him for this wheeling and dealing, mostly because he was better at it than them.

But, he leaves Harrisburg with a legacy of having made real change and having, on balance, a positive impact on the state. Our schools are better today; our roads and infrastructure are better today, our economic climate is better today because of him. That is something he should  be proud of and we should be thankful for.


-- TF




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