I JUST LOVE the idea of a

state-budget debate between our governor, who wants to raise taxes, and our lieutenant governor, who does not.

Make it statewide and advertised and televised, and let citizens hear exactly why they should or should not pay more taxes.

It's an opportunity for Gov. Rendell, who yesterday proposed a $1.5 billion, 16 percent increase in the personal income tax (he says the average family would pay about $260 more a year), to make his case.

It's an opportunity for Republicans, often labeled "the party of 'No,' " to make their case why it's crazy to raise taxes during a recession.

And it's an opportunity for state taxpayers to hear these arguments unfiltered and openly debated.

Right now, it's in the Guv's court.

If you missed it, the online news service capitolwire.com reports that our Democratic governor, His Edness, is ducking such a debate with our Republican lieutenant governor, Joe Scarnati, of Jefferson County.

(Our top two officials are of different parties because of the death in November of Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll. Scarnati, as Senate President Pro Tempore, and as per the state constitution, ascended to the second-in-line post while retaining his Senate leadership gig.)

The debate idea originated with Harrisburg public-television station WITF, which got a "yes" from Scarnati but a "flat no" from the Guv, according to its director of public-affairs programming, Scott Lamar.

"We still want to pursue it," Lamar tells me. "Rather than this [budget] process taking place behind closed doors as it does every year, let people hear the arguments directly and maybe get the public involved."

All eight public TV stations across the state, including Philly's WHYY, agreed to carry the debate live. Three dates next week were offered. And Lamar says that if evening scheduling is a problem for the Guv or Scarnati, he's willing to tape the debate.

It would be moderated by WITF's Nell McCormack Abom, an exceptional interviewer who actually knows something about state government and politics, having worked in the administrations of Gov. Casey and Gov. Ridge.

"I think it would be a national story," she says, "Governor versus lieutenant governor. Opposite parties, opposite opinions on how to deal with the budget crisis. And you know there'd be some fireworks."

Indeed there would.

And when I check with Brian Lockman, head of the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN), he tells me that he'd also carry the debate or even produce it and offer it free to all public stations.

So, there's clearly interest.

And I don't get it. I don't see why Rendell wouldn't want this. He's an accomplished debater, a policy wonk and a pol with deep convictions (agree with him or not) about how to govern.

You'd think he'd relish a smack-down with the less-experienced Scarnati.

I call Rendell spokesman, Chuck Ardo.

"When the initial offer was made, it wasn't really a debate," he tells me. "It was more like a TV show with some phone calls, maybe some e-mails. So the request never went to the governor."

(A check of the original request, provided to me by WITF, confirms this.)

So I ask: Well, what if it's a debate format, Ed vs. Joe?

"Then I think he would look at it differently," says Ardo.

All right! So it's on! Get that formal format invite out there, public TV. Put on a full hour of substantive discussion. Carry it live in prime time and then repeat it. Let citizens who pay for our government see and hear those who run it justify its ever-increasing cost. Let them hear Republican alternatives. It's good for the process, good for democracy, and my bet is it's good TV. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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