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Rendell's dashed dreams

Despite budget meltdown, the lame-duck governor keeps thinking big.

HARRISBURG - Gov. Rendell's annual February budget address has proved a reliable indicator of where he hopes to take the state.

Many of the second-term Democrat's policy initiatives and signature achievements have been introduced, or at least expounded upon, in budget addresses over the last six-plus years, from using slots revenues to cut the property-tax burden to greater public-school funding, expanded health insurance for children, and prescription-drug subsidies for seniors.

His speeches have repeatedly delved into his economic-development ideas and environmental priorities. Read together, they document how he has racked up achievements despite some opposition in the General Assembly and that body's congenital tendency toward inaction.

The governor's budget addresses, however, also are a reminder that some of his proposals have failed to get off the ground or have fallen short.

He has pressed repeatedly to establish the Jonas Salk Legacy Fund to pay for biotech capital projects, with no results.

He urged lawmakers two years ago to improve funding for the state's large public-sector pension systems and endorsed laws designed to stem gun violence. The pension funds remain seriously undercapitalized, and his gun proposals were killed off in a rare demonstration of legislative bipartisanship.

He proposed funding transportation needs with a new tax on the profits of large oil companies and leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to private operators. The tax never got much traction, and the legislature authorized Interstate 80 tolls instead of semi-privatizing the turnpike.

This year's address may have been his most ambitious since taking office, its scope hardly diminished by the worldwide economic slowdown.

He asked lawmakers to help him eliminate 80 percent of the state's 500 school districts, legalize video poker to help pay college costs, expand health-insurance subsidies for tens of thousands of lower-income residents, address a looming jump in electricity prices, and impose a mixture of new taxes.

None of it has happened yet.

The taxes can't be ruled out, not with Pennsylvania nearly six weeks into a budget impasse in which agreeing on new revenue sources has been a major bone of contention.

Mitigating electricity costs could well pass in the coming months, but it appears unlikely that it will go much beyond letting customers rejigger their bills to smooth out higher costs.

At this point, school-district consolidation is a long shot.

And the video-poker debate seems to have been pushed aside by those who would rather add table games such as poker and blackjack to existing slots casinos.

Rendell's chief-of-staff, Steve Crawford, said budget season and the end-of-session period had proved the best time to get lawmakers to act.

"Some have said that the governor always attaches all these things to the budget," Crawford said. "No, we would prefer that they get done in March, in April, in May."

Rep. Sam Smith of Jefferson County, who as floor leader of the House Republicans is often the face of opposition to Rendell's offensives, says the governor's budget approach contrasts with how others have tackled the job.

"I don't remember administrations throwing so much stuff on the table, so many issues on the table, as this administration does," Smith said recently. "He likes to create chaos; he likes to create controversies. While you're distracted, looking at a different issue, he's getting what he wants."

Crawford said Rendell was not trying to distract his opponents. He offered the 3,000 or so bills that get introduced each session as a comparison, noting that many address such minutiae as naming a bridge or designating a state reptile.

"It's a virtual diamond mine of shiny objects," Crawford said. "Sometimes there's a value in being for something, as opposed to being against everything someone else is for."