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Rendell needs to learn the art of compromise

| Monday, June 30, 2003

It's been said that Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell never met a conservative Republican until he came to Harrisburg.

That may not be true, literally. It is certainly instructive nonetheless in terms of understanding the dynamics, or lack thereof, of Rendell's dealings with the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

In Philadelphia, where Rendell served as mayor for eight years, he worked with a Democratic city council. The "miracle of Philadelphia," to the extent there was one in turning the city's finances around in the early 1990's, was done with one-party rule.

Many of the Republicans in the city and Philadelphia suburbs who back Rendell so heartily, are moderate, and some would say, liberal Republicans.

So when Rendell set out to work with the Republican-controlled state legislature last January it doesn't appear that he took into account the Jeffrey Piccolas of the world, the hard-line fiscal and social conservatives, sprinkled throughout the ranks of GOP caucuses and in leadership. Piccola is a Republican state senator from Harrisburg who serves as Senate majority whip.

These are folks who want no part of a state income-tax increase, no matter how noble the programs. Some think a $2 billion economic stimulus plan is way out of line. They aren't eager to turn Pennsylvania into the next Atlantic City. In some cases they may be apathetic, certainly not enthusiastic, about new slot parlors across the state. They worry about the long-range cost of state-paid preschool and full-day kindergarten but don't discount some benefit. Many believe Rendell's proposal for smaller class sizes amounts to a full employment bill for the teachers' unions.

For sure, there are moderate Republicans in leadership and the caucuses. In House Speaker John Perzel's case, he might be more accurately termed a pragmatic Republican with a philosophy of doing whatever it takes to keep the GOP in power. He's been highly successful in doing that since Republicans took control in 1995.

Rendell's clumsy dealings with the General Assembly, the mixed messages from Rendell and his staff with lawmakers, and his almost four-month insistence of all-or-nothing for his "Plan for a New Pennsylvania," summarized above, are about to come home to roost.

The General Assembly is expected to wrap up business in early July. Rendell has long threatened to veto $4 billion-plus in basic education subsidies if lawmakers don't deliver his early childhood education programs - what Rendell refers to as "education reform." Rendell has the power to veto funds for public schools and to call the legislature back into session over the summer.

That would amount to thermonuclear warfare and Rendell would be wise not to go there.

In the end, some Democrats I've talked to say leaving schools unfunded heading into September is not something they bought into or welcome.

If Rendell employs this high-risk strategy, he runs the risk of a veto override supported by members of his own party and would be guaranteed an ineffective three years during the remainder of his term as governor.

All of this said, Republicans repeatedly say they don't want to embarrass Rendell. Many of them share some similar goals such as reducing property taxes. They disagree, however, how to go about it.

As of this writing, here's what I am hearing that Rendell may get out of his ambitious tax-and-spend plan:

-- Legalizing slots at tracks, maybe.

-- A scaled-down "economic stimulus" bill.

-- No income tax hike.

-- Pilot programs for some his early childhood programs, such as pre-school.

-- Possibly dollar-for-dollar property tax cuts with voter referendums, perhaps on the front and back ends of any shift. The funding source remains unclear.

If Rendell gives up the tough guy role, and sets aside the veto pen he's been prematurely waving around, the Republicans may play ball and give him enough to claim a partial victory.

If he goes on a legislative jihad, he will get nothing.

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