SOMETHING'S in the air each budget season that makes Ed Rendell plain squirrelly. He gets more loose-lipped and spends time in a place I call "Ed World."

These blunders/side trips are as reliable as traffic jams on the Schuylkill.

Take the flap over hiring former press aide and deputy mayor Kevin Feeley to craft a message to help get things Ed wants in the pending budget.

The Inky reported that taxpayers went on the hook for $30,000 for Feeley, who now runs Philly PR firm Bellevue Communications, to deliver a "legacy project" for Ed, who leaves office in January.

Last week, Ed said he knew nothing of the deal and that there was no money for such a thing, especially with the state facing a $1.2 billion deficit.

This week he acknowledged the contract, canceled it and said Feeley's paying back $10,000 he got so far. And, said Ed, he'll do what should have been done in the first place and pay Feeley with campaign cash.

"I can afford it," Ed said.

I guess. He has $2.3 million in one committee, $51,677 in another. Not bad for a guy who can't seek re-election and says he's not running for anything else.

Hey, while helping Feeley, maybe he can help the budget.

Feeley, by the way, got at least one other state contract from Ed. He was paid $60,000 in 2007 for work related to failed efforts to privatize the turnpike.

Oh, and the new Feeley thing's not a "legacy project." It's providing "support for the budget." I suppose no one in the governor's office or agencies is capable of adequately supporting the budget.

So is Ed too distracted by budget blindness, Ed World travel or something else to pay attention to tax dollars flowing from his office to old pals, or is someone other than Ed running the show?

Since he said he didn't know about the contract, when asked who on his evidently rogue staff did, he said, "I think they all did," which he amended to, maybe not all, but "the hierarchy." He called his staff "overly enthusiastic" about the Rendell agenda.

Well, who isn't?

Chief of staff Steve Crawford takes the fall, though to me the whole thing smells: Award an entirely inappropriate contract to a crony at a time of cuts and possible layoffs, get caught, rescind the contract and blame others.

Isn't the boss supposed to take responsibility for stuff that goes bad?

Not, apparently, in Ed World, a place of selective memory and distorted vision.

When he fessed up to playing get-Joe-Sestak-out-of-the-primary, for example, he several times said he mounted the same sort of effort in '06 to get Joe Hoeffel out of a primary against Bob Casey Jr.

Except Hoeffel was never in that primary; he intended to run for lieutenant governor against then-incumbent Catherine Baker Knoll. Hoeffel tells me, "The governor and I never spoke about Casey in '06 . . . the governor and I spoke twice in '06 about lieutenant governor."

Hoeffel entered, then exited, the race against Knoll. Ed later gave him a state job.

During last year's budget battle, Ed said state employees should put a "statue of me up on their mantels" and repeatedly insisted that by declining a cost-of-living increase he was taking "a pay cut."

I'm not positive there are no Rendell statues on any state worker's mantel, but I am positive that when one continues to be employed at the same salary (in his case $174,956), one is not taking a pay cut.

In one budget season, he invoked Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," encouraging mass-transit fans to back a plan to tax oil companies and lead like Aragorn to triumph over evil. Then he opined, as someone known for setting land-speed records on the not-privatized turnpike, that obeying speed laws can be a "safety hazard."

What's next, listening to Alycia Lane's side of the flirty e-mails story?

Stay tuned. Budget season's in full bloom and Ed World is flowering.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.