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John Baer: Ed's parting gift: How about fewer dollars, more sense?

IT'S NO SURPRISE that Gov. Ed wants to go out with a billion-dollar bang. Borrowing double the largest amount of money of any exiting governor in state history to pay for an array of state projects is Eddie being Eddie.

IT'S NO SURPRISE that Gov. Ed wants to go out with a billion-dollar bang.

Borrowing double the largest amount of money of any exiting governor in state history to pay for an array of state projects is Eddie being Eddie.

But while bond issuances regularly are rubber-stamped by the auditor general and/or the treasurer, Ed's current $1 billion baby is stuck - and rightly so.

Not that borrowing's always bad. It's done two or three times a year for stuff such as bridge repair, improvements to universities, aid to museums and the arts, and sometimes-questionable private redevelopment projects.

But there's a big difference during a recession between fixing bridges in the interest of public safety and funding, say, the dinosaur hall at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum, or Empire Kosher Poultry, in Juniata County.

Not that I have anything against dinosaurs or kosher poultry.

It's just that borrowing now at such a level with a projected budget deficit next June of $4 billion or more seems excessively excessive.

And not just to me.

So, since the borrowing process has a safety valve - a Guv can't do it alone; approval of the auditor general or treasurer is required - we're at a standstill.

Auditor General Jack Wagner says no because it adds $82 million in annual debt payment to an already battered budget. (This would be on top of debt payment that tripled to $250 million since Rendell took office.) And money already is in the pipeline for "truly essential" projects, Wagner argues.

Treasurer Rob McCord's concerned about the size of borrowing and asks for Gov.-elect Cut-Cut Corbett's view since Corbett takes over next month.

When I saw the bond request, I thought: What a nice, round number, somebody adding up projects must have said, "Oh, what the hell, let's just make it a billion."

I also thought: What a great going-away gift from Ed to outside bond counsel, since the legion of state-employed lawyers, for whatever reason, doesn't do high-end work.

And while selection of outside counsel rotates from a pre-approved list allegedly open to any law firm, this has a full-circle quality.

The Guv picked Philly firm Stradley Ronon (should make for nice year-end bonuses), which employs Ed's '02 campaign-finance director, Herb Vederman.

This issuance wouldn't fund controversial newer projects, such as the Arlen Specter library, the Jack Murtha policy center or the luxury spa/hotel/golf complex "Valhalla," in Chester County.

But it would fund $200 million in bridge repair; $400 million in "public improvement," such as flood control, prison construction and expansion of Philly's port; and standing state programs, such as environment-oriented Growing Greener II and PENNVEST for drinking-water projects.

Then there's $155 million in redevelopment assistance, which can be almost anything: private projects, aid to private schools, city parks and playgrounds, or the Philadelphia Zoo.

Perhaps the answer is in this mix.

When a family has no money, it doesn't go to the zoo; it stays home and watches Animal Planet. When a state has no money, it should restrict spending, delaying all but public-safety projects until resources are available.

One reason Ed wants to borrow now is to take advantage of federal Build America Bonds, which subsidize borrowing but expire at year's end.

State Treasury officials, however, suggest the program's continuation and note a trend of higher bond-interest rates in December and lower rates in January.

A Treasury Department memo also says that a bond issue of $500 million to $575 million is "sufficient to satisfy existing project-funding needs" until June, adding: "It would be both widely inconsistent with historic norms as well as projected funding needs to authorize a level of $1 billion in new commonwealth debt."

And a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times says that big borrowing by states could trigger further economic meltdown nationally.

So if neither the treasurer nor the auditor general thinks we need to borrow a billion, and if there are concerns about future economic damage, why do it?

Although the "historic norm" calls for outgoing Guvs to borrow ere they leave, we're in a new economic norm, our outgoing Guv holds different views from those of our incoming Guv, and the new guy should decide how much is borrowed and for what.

Some common sense here would be a nice parting present for taxpayers - a better goodbye than more largesse for bond-counsel buddies.

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