Ever had a conversation with someone who starts to tell a story and then, midway through, says “Blah blah blah” (or words to that effect) and then skips ahead to the end—without providing details on what happened in between? This often leaves the listener confused and wondering what important facts the speaker is omitting.
Well, whoever wrote Gov. Ed Rendell’s first campaign commercial is that kind of storyteller—because the ad employs the “blah blah blah” strategy of relating the beginning and end of a tale about the governor’s fiscal policies, while leaving out some critical information about what happened in the middle. And in this case, the story’s listeners—Pennsylvania citizens—really ought to hear more about the Rendell record on taxes and spending.
The campaign commercial in question begins with a shot of the State Capitol swathed in dark, ominous clouds, with “2003” superimposed on the screen as a narrator intones, “When he became governor, the state was facing a $2 billion deficit—and it was getting worse every day.” Indeed, upon taking office Gov. Rendell was facing a projected revenue shortfall that had already prompted outgoing Gov. Mark Schweiker to freeze $270 million in state spending for the current budget year. But a $2 billion deficit? That could only be true because Gov. Rendell wanted to spend $2 billion more in the next budget year than Pennsylvania taxpayers were “giving at the office.”
The narration continues: “Auditing every department, he instituted dozens of programs to save money, cutting the fat and waste in state government, and holding the bureaucrats accountable for their spending.” As these words are read, the screen shows newspaper headlines reading “Rendell Will Slash Budget by $120 Million” (referring to a $120 million spending freeze ordered by the governor in February 2003) and “Rendell Slices $212 Million” (which referenced the governor’s subsequent proposal to reduce general government operations spending by 10 percent).
It is at this point that the commercial arrives at its “blah blah blah” moment, for the next line in the narration is “Now the state budget is balanced, and his new budget includes surpluses and tax cuts,” as the screen shows newspaper headlines reading “Rendell Proposes Business Tax Cuts” and “State Revenues Beat Expectations.” The campaign commercial concludes with the tagline, “Ed Rendell: Making the tough decisions to move Pennsylvania forward.”
Viewers of the commercial are clearly meant to get the impression that the only “tough decisions” Gov. Rendell made to balance the budget involved reducing spending and increasing government efficiency. Unfortunately for Pennsylvania taxpayers, they weren’t, and your tax bills are proof of it.
In March 2003, Gov. Rendell presented a “two-phase” state budget to the General Assembly. Phase I included some spending cuts, but in submitting his plan, the governor said that he “hated” the proposal because it would “do nothing but balance the budget” and did not include policy changes that he deemed necessary to improve Pennsylvania’s economy and public education system. The Republican-controlled General Assembly responded by swiftly approving Gov. Rendell’s original, less expansive proposal, thus leading him to veto the state’s $4 billion basic education subsidy in order to force negotiations over the rest of his agenda.
That agenda, dubbed the “Plan for a New Pennsylvania,” was introduced three weeks later and included a proposed 34% increase in the state personal income tax, a $2 billion “economic stimulus” program to be financed largely with new taxpayer-funded debt, and a multitude of other new tax and spending initiatives. After nearly nine months of contentious negotiations with the General Assembly, the Legislature passed and governor approved a budget that ultimately included approximately $1 billion in tax increases, $2 billion in new debt, the restoration of many of his previous spending cuts, but no property tax relief.
When the “blah blah blah” on Gov. Rendell’s fiscal record is filled in with the details, it turns out that while he has balanced Pennsylvania’s budget (no special achievement, as it is constitutionally required), he has balanced it at higher spending levels each year. At the same time, any savings from his government reform initiatives have been spent several times over, and the economic growth and meaningful property tax relief he promised will not materialize (if at all) until well into his hoped-for second term in office. And while the governor has proposed some small tax cuts in his 2006-07 budget, he vetoed very similar business tax cuts last December—which passed both chambers of the General Assembly with overwhelming bi-partisan support.
It’s understandable that as Gov. Rendell seeks re-election, he wants to call as little attention as possible to his failure to keep his inaugural commitment to make state government “live within its means.” But while the “blah blah blah” strategy might obscure the details about that failure through this campaign season, it will never change the fact that the middle of his story was not good for taxpaying Pennsylvanians.
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Grant R. Gulibon is a Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute located in Harrisburg, PA.