Gov. Rendell’s Gamesmanship

This article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 27, 2010.

While table games have been in Pennsylvania casinos for more than a month, I don’t know if Gov. Rendell has tried his luck. But it would be a safe wager that he’s a fantastic poker player. Why? For eight years, he’s been able to bluff, bully, and stare down anyone who opposes his tax-borrow-and-spend agenda.

Rendell recently threatened layoffs of 24,000 state and local government workers if Congress didn’t give Pennsylvania $850 million in additional “stimulus” funds. Anyone with a calculator could have figured out that this was a bluff: $850 million divided by 24,000 is about $35,000, but the average full-time state worker earns more than $50,000 in salary alone. Throw in benefits and other costs, and the price per worker is 2 1/2 times what Rendell’s number would suggest.

After Pennsylvania got about two-thirds of the money Rendell wanted, the governor lowered his projected layoffs by a whopping 99.6 percent. Now he says only 100 or so state workers will be laid off.

Does anyone now doubt that Rendell made up a number to scare lawmakers into giving him more money?

This is hardly the first time Rendell has bluffed. Last year, he suggested that budget cuts would force most state parks to close, and that state police layoffs would be so drastic that child predators would roam free. Both threats proved empty.

But Rendell’s bluffs continue. He has stoked fears about the environment to push a new tax on natural-gas extraction. Yet such a tax would do nothing to protect the environment. The resulting revenue wouldn’t go to environmental inspections or mitigation, which are already covered by fees and fines on drillers. Rather, most of it would go to the general fund to pay for whatever Rendell or his successor wants.

Perhaps the governor’s longest-running bluff concerns education spending. Rendell claims any reduction to his proposed spending on schools would hurt students. Yet at the same time, he has approved cuts to the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which supports scholarships to private schools that educate students at a lower cost than the public schools. The administration has also advocated reducing spending on cost-effective cyber-schools.

School enrollment has been declining even as state subsidies, property taxes, and school staffing are on the rise. At the same time, schools are spending a higher share of their funding on facilities, from Taj Mahal buildings to football stadiums. Rendell has cleverly used his “for the kids” argument to push an agenda that benefits adults employed by special interests.

This summer, Rendell toured the state by bus to lobby for more transportation money, citing bridges on the verge of collapse. This was good politics: Most voters, even if they think we already spend enough, believe we should fix deficient bridges, and the fear of a bridge collapse resonates with everyone.

But Rendell omits the fact that he has dramatically increased transportation spending. He fails to mention that he has moved money away from highways and bridges to transit agencies, helping to enable bonuses for striking SEPTA workers. And he conveniently overlooks his borrowing of $600 million not for bridges, but to build an Arlen Specter Library and a Jack Murtha Center for Public Policy, induce an unidentified Fortune 500 company to relocate to Allentown, and fix up a baseball stadium for the Yankees’ farm team.

What if lawmakers decided to dedicate that $600 million to transportation infrastructure instead? Rendell could still go on a bus tour to convince voters that they need to pay more taxes for the Specter library and the baseball stadium.

With only a few months of the lame-duck Rendell administration left, it might seem as if the governor doesn’t have the cards to bully lawmakers into supporting his agenda. But the governor may still find a way to bluff them into new taxes, higher spending, and more debt before he cashes in his chips.

# # #

Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.