HARRISBURG - With several dozen children at his feet, Gov. Rendell signed the $28 billion state budget Tuesday at a school cafeteria here to highlight the hundreds of millions of dollars he preserved in additional state aid to schools.
But the ceremony was swiftly overshadowed by questions - including the auditor general's - about Rendell's plan to devote $20 million in proceeds from state construction bonds to housing the papers of two longtime Pennsylvania officeholders: Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter and the late John P. Murtha.
The Arlen Specter Library would be built at Philadelphia University in the city's East Falls section, where Specter lives. The John P. Murtha Center for Public Policy would be at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, in the district Democrat Murtha represented in Congress for 36 years before his death on Feb. 8, at age 77.
Rendell's $298 million capital budget, financed by state-issued construction bonds, includes $10 million each for the proposed repositories. He plans to sign that budget, details of which were made public last week.
Speaking to reporters after Tuesday's event, the governor defended the two projects and the capital budget in general as ways to keep Pennsylvanians employed during the recession.
"Both are great construction projects," he said. He called the planned library and policy center "an investment in jobs" and said such public works helped keep Pennsylvania's economy stronger than most states' in the region.
Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma cautioned that neither project is a done deal, and that the money is contingent on the projects' being "shovel ready," and on the two colleges' ability to raise matching funds.
Of the Specter library, Rendell said the East Falls site was appropriate because the school is in Specter's neighborhood - also Rendell's neighborhood. He described the project as a renovation and expansion of the college's existing library space.
Republicans immediately assailed the governor for designating $20 million to honor two congressional power brokers, both renowned for their ability to secure federal funds for projects back home, as well as their prowess at raising campaign money.
"Why in the heck are we putting money into an Arlen Specter library when the man has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in his lifetime as a politician?" said Matt Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Harrisburg. "Why did Gov. Rendell feel the need to do the same for John Murtha? The number of companies that have benefited from this man bringing pork to his district could have easily underwritten this."
Asked how it looked to promote such projects while cutting aid to public libraries 9 percent in the budget he had just signed, the governor pointed to the difference between the general fund and the capital budget.
"You can't use bond dollars for operating expenses," he said.
That distinction was not lost on the public libraries' point person in Harrisburg.
"They are different pots of money. I get that," said Glenn Miller, who heads the Pennsylvania Library Association. But he said that the state has cut aid to public libraries for several years in a row, even as the recession has driven up library use. "We started at $75 million and we are ending at $54 million this year," Miller said. "You do the math."
The Specter project "is to renovate an existing building to house [Specter's] significant papers, documents, and memorabilia," said Rendell's spokesman, Tuma, by e-mail. "It will serve as a facility for scholarly research, lectures, seminars, and cultural activities."
Further details of the plan for a Specter library were not immediately available. Attempts to reach president Stephen Spinelli and other officials at Philadelphia University, for comment were unsuccessful.
Rendell said Specter had not been involved in launching the project. The two men's friendship dates to the 1960s, when Rendell worked as a prosecutor under then-District Attorney Specter. Efforts to reach Specter for comment were also unsuccessful.
In May, the five-term, 80-year-old senator lost a hard-fought Democratic primary battle against U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.
As for the Murtha center, the goal is "to build a facility that will serve as an archive and repository for [Murtha's] public papers," Tuma said. "The building will also house classrooms, lecture facilities, multipurpose venues for lectures and public events, and library space for research."
Under the state's budget structure, the general fund covers operating expenses, such as salaries and services, while the capital budget - this year totaling $600 million in all - pays for "bricks and mortar" improvements for a wide array of entities, among them hospital, factories, highways, transit systems, schools, museums, and libraries.
Traditionally, the governor gets to designate half the amount borrowed for his favored construction projects, and the legislature gets its say with the other half - though Johnna Pro, spokeswoman for State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), who sponsored the capital budget bill, noted that legislators of both parties benefit from projects the governor blesses in their districts.
The amount of borrowing for capital projects varies year to year, and the designated projects amount to a "wish list" of long-term projects. That list is subject to change with a new administration and the ability to raise matching funds.
About $141 million in the governor's pot this year has been designated for projects in Philadelphia and the four suburban counties.
State Rep. Doug Reichley (R., Lehigh) faulted Rendell for not providing detailed background or explanation on the various projects in the capital budget - even to legislators who had to vote on it.
"This appears to be an abuse of power by the governor on his way out the door," he said.
Auditor General Jack Wagner said Tuesday that he was considering performing an audit of the capital budget and the process around it, perhaps before Rendell leaves office in January. Both are Democrats but Wagner has faulted Rendell's administration in past audits.
"There certainly been more creative economic development programs in the last five years," said Wagner. "It's not necessarily in a negative sense, but we need to determine if in fact the program is working as it was intended to work."
The $28 billion state budget that Rendell signed Tuesday holds the line on spending, adds no new taxes, makes cuts across most state agencies, and anticipates layoffs of about 1,000 state workers. It also relies on $850 million in additional federal Medicaid funding that has not yet been approved by Congress and faces an uphill battle when members return to work later this month.
Later Tuesday, Rendell signed the fiscal code, another piece of the overall budget package, in Bradford County, near the New York borderland in the heart of the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling region.
Rendell told residents of Towanda that he and the legislature would develop what he called a "fair" tax on the extraction of natural gas in the shale region by Oct. 1, as agreed to under the budget deal. He said details, including the tax's rates and structure, would be worked out over the summer.