Whether it's vanity run amok or a half-baked budget strategy, Gov. Rendell's "legacy project" is a bad idea.

Rendell hired a public-relations consultant for $30,000, at taxpayer expense, to find heartwarming anecdotes about the people he has helped as governor. Sort of like a Hallmark card from the governor to, um, the governor.

After the story broke in The Inquirer, Rendell sought the last refuge of any embarrassed pol: he blamed it on bad staff work. The governor said he didn't know tax money was being spent on the project. He decided instead to pay for it with his campaign cash.

At least that isn't as bad an idea as spending tax money. But Rendell's vow that "not one dime" of taxpayer dollars will be spent rang hollow. About 100,000 of those dimes have already been spent; the state is retrieving them from the consultant, the ubiquitous Kevin Feeley.

The heartwarming anecdotes are being compiled, ostensibly, to strengthen the governor's hand during budget negotiations with those stingy Senate Republicans (and perhaps to woo wayward House Democrats in Western Pennsylvania, too). If only legislators understood the human impact of the governor's policies, this theory holds, they would stop cutting programs and raise taxes.

Having met quite a few Senate Republicans, the governor must know this strategy is unlikely to change minds. Instead of giving Rendell the upper hand in budget talks, the governor bought himself a distraction and two days' worth of negative publicity.

The timing was hideous in another way. Harrisburg is in the midst of a debilitating grand jury investigation focused on public officials' misuse of tax dollars for political purposes. The governor's sideshow looks and smells like another such misadventure. Rendell's belated decision to use campaign funds only supports that view.

The sum of $30,000 isn't much, compared with the state's $29 billion budget. But as convicted former Democratic Rep. Mike Veon can tell you, it's the thought that counts.

Any governor of either party can point to the perceived benefits of his or her policies. Rendell's legacy is a subject for historians, not taxpayers and public relations mavens. But this governor perpetually complains that he doesn't get enough credit for all the good he has done in his two terms. His vanity apparently couldn't take it any longer.

Happily, the perfect solution awaits Rendell. When he leaves office, he can write a book.