Rendell on Rendell

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has just a few days left in office.

Once he departs Pennsylvania’s political scene, the Democrat from East Falls will be remembered as a big talker and a big spender.

During his eight years in Harrisburg, Rendell rarely kept an opinion to himself.

A few memorable statements:

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“All Republican candidates aren’t whacked out or fruit loops, or anything like that.”

“This is probably a sad commentary on my life, but I can think of nothing that pleases me more. Except maybe Ginger rolling over on her back. Ginger is my golden retriever. Just want to make that clear. I want to make that absolutely, abundantly clear.”

“You guys don’t get that! You’re simpletons. You’re idiots if you don’t get that!”

Those were May and September press conferences, as well as a recent appearance on “60 Minutes.”

Rendell spent as much he talked.

The state budget was a bit below $21 billion the year he took office; last year’s budget was more than $28 billion.

The governor prolonged every budget negotiation to make sure his priorities were funded, and his main priority was education.

The General Assembly increased school funding by billions of dollars under Rendell’s watch, and devoted an unprecedented amount of money to kindergarten and pre-k programs.

Rendell was also aggressive about using state money as a catalyst for economic development projects across Pennsylvania.

“I always thought it would be neat if we could do a Google map of those towns as they existed in 2002, as they exist today,” he said. “And then today, take out of the current map every building that was constructed with the help of investments we made with the help of the government during my eight years.”

Careful investor or spendthrift?

Republican critics, such as Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, say all that spending wasn’t worth it.

“We have the largest deficit, I think, in state history, that we’re looking at for the next year’s budget. We are looking at the highest level of debt in the state’s history. We’re looking at the highest rate of unemployment,” Pileggi said.

“So the economic indicators are pretty clear that the state’s in a much worse position, financially, than it was eight years ago.”

Rendell has pointed out Pennsylvania’s deficit has been much smaller than other big states’ the last two years, and its unemployment has stayed below the national average.

Pileggi isn’t impressed.

“I don’t accept the argument that because some of the other 50 states are in a worse financial condition than we are, that somehow we should celebrate that,” he said.

Another major Rendell legacy will be gambling, according to political scientist Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College.

“By 2017, if all goes well, there will be 14 gaming sites across the state of Pennsylvania. And he’ll be known as a governor who brought king-sized gaming to Pennsylvania,” said Madonna.

Rendell’s signature legalized gambling in 2004. Last year, he signed a bill bringing table games to casinos, and he unsuccessfully pushed for video poker terminals in bars in 2009.

The governor dismisses the notion that casinos will be the one thing Pennsylvania remembers him for.

“Probably education, or just generally moving the progressive agenda forward. I think that’s moreso – perhaps among editorial writers, they’re obsessed with gaming. But I don’t think the people are,” he said.

There were misses, too.

Despite his role as a national advocate for infrastructure investment, the legislature ignored Rendell’s repeated calls for new taxes funding roads and bridges last year.

He also failed to pass a natural gas severance tax, and reform efforts like campaign contribution limits and the merit selection of judges never materialized.

Rendell’s lasting legacy could still change over the next few years.

With Republicans controlling the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, conservative leaders will try to roll back spending levels.

Pileggi and incoming Gov. Tom Corbett have said they’ll continue Rendell’s early childhood education efforts – but Republicans will likely try to slash the state’s basic education subsidy for school districts as they attempt to fill a multibillion-dollar deficit next year.

By then, Rendell will have moved on to the lucrative pasture of cable TV, where opinions like this one… “Look: this is part of the wussification of America” …will be more than welcome.

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