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Governor won, lost

| Wednesday, July 11, 2007

HARRISBURG - Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell took the equivalent of a four-year agenda, tossed it against a wall and hoped some of it would stick in the Legislature's chambers.

Most of it didn't.

In his February budget address, Rendell - at the peak of his power following a November election victory with 61 percent of the vote - presented one of the most ambitious annual agendas proposed by a Pennsylvania governor in recent history.

Under a deal struck Monday night by Rendell, the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House, none of the seven tax hikes he proposed will be enacted. Nor will his plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company. Rendell wanted higher taxes to pay for health care, higher spending, alternative energy projects, highways and mass transit.

Lawmakers said no to Rendell's proposed $850 million alternative energy fund, which required one of the seven tax hikes - a surcharge on electricity consumers. Instead, lawmakers this fall will consider a $60 million-a-year version without a tax increase.

The deal came on the ninth day of a bitter budget impasse, after Rendell furloughed nearly 25,000 state workers for one day.

Lawmakers agreed to a $27.4 billion budget, a slightly higher level of spending than Rendell proposed, and gave the governor many of his budget priorities, from increased pre-kindergarten funding to making laptops readily available in high school classrooms.

"It's negotiating 101," said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. "Anyone who's bought a house or a car knows you throw out your dream offer first. When it's scaled back, you find something you can live with."

More than $900 million a year, on average, will be delivered to improve highways and bridges and to pay for mass transit, through higher tolls on the turnpike and new tolls on Interstate 80. The transportation bill pending in the Senate includes a proposed 10 percent tax on poured alcoholic drinks in Allegheny County to provide a local share for transit funding. The tax requires approval by County Council.

"Transportation, without a question, is the big winner" in the budget deal, said Jerry Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh.

Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, contends the public loses with the huge transportation bill because it "perpetuates the operational inefficiencies of the Port Authority and (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) by giving them more money without reform."

"We're going to do it by expanding one of the most corrupt agencies in the history of Pennsylvania - the Turnpike Commission," he said. The turnpike would borrow $9.5 billion to fund transportation throughout the state and oversee the I-80 tolling.

Senate Republicans can claim victory for blocking all of the tax increases, said Borick. To some, the higher tolls don't count, he said. "User fees are not as egregious to some Republicans as a tax increase."

The Republicans' message to defeat higher taxes and to limit spending drowned out substantive policy debate on health care and energy, said Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. She believes the budget deal was "a mixed bag" for Rendell.

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