In the nearly three years since he became president of Philadelphia University, Stephen Spinelli Jr. has nurtured a relationship with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, who lives within blocks of the school.

They talked about the importance of the senator's papers and his impact on the nation, the city, and the neighborhood, Spinelli said in an interview Wednesday.

After Specter was defeated in the May Democratic primary, the conversation intensified into talk of a library to house the collection, and Philadelphia University applied to the state for funding.

"As a normal part of that conversation, we had a discussion about where his stuff would go. We thought it should go in a special place," Spinelli said.

And so it will.

With the state chipping in half the $4 million price, the Arlen Specter Library could open as early as fall 2011.

Gov. Rendell signed the $298 million capital budget bill - which includes money for the library plan, among dozens of other handpicked projects - at a Pittsburgh technical center that is slated to get as much as $10 million to create "green job training."

Almost half the $298 million is slated to go to Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, for hotels, hospitals, office parks, and universities.

Word of the authorization for the library and other state-backed construction projects came out late Friday after a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, less than 24 hours before the General Assembly voted on the legislation.

The projects are largely selected by Rendell, but legislators from both parties have a say.

Still, that didn't quell the storm of protest from gubernatorial candidates, legislators, and Harrisburg good-government groups that this week marked the fifth anniversary of the infamous, middle-of-the-night legislative pay-raise vote.

"People have a right to know what government is doing with their money," said Tim Potts, a former top House Democratic aide and founder of Democracy Rising.

G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College, said he was disturbed that the governor was "giving away" hundreds of millions without any stated criteria.

"I'm not suggesting the projects are not worthy, but without criteria and transparency, how can anyone know?" he asked.

Specter is traveling overseas, his spokesman said, and was not available for comment.

Routing money to a governor's pet projects - even those honoring themselves - is nothing new.

When Gov. Tom Ridge stepped down in October 2001, he dropped $25 million on his hometown of Erie for an environmental center - soon to be named the Tom Ridge Environmental Center.

Shortly before Gov. Mark Schweiker left office in January 2003, he cut the ribbon on a Bucks County visitors' center that included a wall in honor of the two governors from the county: Schweiker and William Penn.
There was considerable objection to projects in the fiscal 2011 capital budget - Rendell's last - even if they didn't include a monument with his name on it.

The Specter library, originally slated to receive $10 million, honors a member of Congress who is still in office. Then there are the public-policy center and archives slated for construction at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown in honor of the late Rep. John P. Murtha (D., Pa.).

Both men were known for their prodigious political fund-raising abilities and congressional clout, and several have questioned why any public money should be involved.

In fact, both candidates who want to replace Rendell in January questioned the amount of borrowing - and the estimated $48 million in loan payments - as the state climbs out of the recession.

"This is a classic example of what's wrong with Harrisburg," Republican nominee Tom Corbett said in a statement. "Gov. Rendell will be long out of office, but our children and grandchildren will be paying the debt service or interest for his spending for years and years to come."

Brian Herman, a spokesman for Democratic nominee Dan Onorato, said the projects "warrant scrutiny and careful evaluation."

"Dan's first questions would be: How many construction and permanent jobs do these projects create?" Herman said. "There should also be full disclosure for all taxpayer-funded projects, including how much taxpayers are funding and the name of the recipient."

State legislatures should give the public at least three days' notice before debating bills, especially budgets, according to the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, whose mission is to make government transparent.

"We believe that we should be able follow money online and we advocate for lawmakers in U.S. Congress to post all bills online at least 72 hours before they begin debating them," said Gabriela Schneider, communications director for Sunlight. "The same principal should definitely apply when states are figuring out budgets. It shouldn't be something done in the dark and there shouldn't be last-minute changes."

One of the main attractions at the Specter library, Philadelphia University officials say, would be Specter himself. He would have an office in the library, which would be built in the historic Roxboro House, and Spinelli said he hoped the senator would lecture and become as involved with the university as possible.

The archives would include photos of Specter with various dignitaries, his papers, and artifacts from around the world, Spinelli said.

"We've only begun discussing the vast opportunities for programming around this," he said.

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.