Rendell discusses university funding, SEPTA

When he left the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in 1985, the last thing Edward G. Rendell imagined he’d be doing 20 years later was occupying the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg. After a seven-year hiatus from

When he left the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in 1985, the last thing Edward G. Rendell imagined he’d be doing 20 years later was occupying the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg.

After a seven-year hiatus from public life, Rendell became mayor of Philadelphia in 1992. His administration immediately began tackling the city’s biggest fiscal problems, turning a $1.4 billion budget deficit into five consecutive surpluses while also cutting taxes. Although his administration’s economic policies weren’t popular with some labor unions and other groups, he was reelected in a landslide victory in 1996.

After current Mayor John F. Street took office in 2000, Rendell taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had been an undergraduate in the 1960s. In 2002, he won the gubernatorial race against Republican Mike Fisher. Rendell is currently on a tour to raise money for his reelection next year.

Temple News staff writer John Paul Titlow met with Rendell on his way from a fundraiser in Avoca, Pa. to a meeting of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Alliance in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

The Temple News: How much progress do you think Philadelphia has made since the day that you were first elected mayor of the city?

Gov. Rendell: In terms of the government’s balance sheet, extraordinary progress. We went from the largest deficit in Philadelphia’s history, and I think, percentage wise, the largest deficit in any American city’s history to the largest surpluses in our history …

In terms of the economy of the city, although there are still challenges, it’s absolutely booming. Property values are way off the charts … Places that people had written off for dead are now booming and land values are going crazy … The city hasn’t by any means conquered all of its challenges, but it’s doing remarkably well. It’s really the comeback city of America in the last 15 years.

TTN: You have been faced with a lot of criticism about the recent pay raise that Pennsylvania legislators gave themselves. How can you justify that?

Rendell: The pay raise bill was like a lot of bills. There was a lot of good in it, and some things not so good. First and foremost, the bill included a pay raise for our judges, who haven’t had a pay raise in 14 years. … Secondly, I wanted to get the task of salary-setting out of the hands of the legislature.

I didn’t think it was appropriate for the legislature to set its own salaries, nor did I think it was appropriate for it to set the salaries of the judiciary, who rule on cases involving actions taken by the legislature. This bill does that.

It takes the power to give raises out of the hands of the legislature and ties it to a scheme that tracks federal salaries. So the legislature no longer has the power to raises its own salaries, and that’s an important plus. … I thought parts of the legislative pay raise bill were excessive … Certainly, the taking of unvouchered expenses is an artifice that I think probably violates the law. The legislature shouldn’t take that part of it.

TTN: What was the most challenging part of making the transition from mayor of a big city to governor of a state like Pennsylvania?

Rendell: The knowledge base. There were certain subjects that were very important to a governor that I knew very little about as mayor. Agriculture is a perfect example. Agriculture is the biggest employer in Pennsylvania.

It has a $45 billion impact on our yearly economy and I had to learn, basically starting from scratch. I also had to learn about the different municipalities and locations and the different challenges that each section of the state faced. … I’m a great believer that you learn best by seeing things firsthand, and by talking to people on the ground.

TTN: You recently sued the Pentagon to try and prevent the closure of the Willow Grove Air Force Base. Why is this base so important to Pennsylvania?

Rendell: … There were seven or eight thousand jobs that were on the line in Willow Grove.

You can’t turn your back on human beings and say, “You know, we don’t need you anymore, we’re going to develop the land, so who cares?” … Number two was the military value of Willow Grove – not so much to the country, that’s the Defense Department’s duty to assess – but to [Pennsylvania] in terms of homeland security.

If there was an airborne attack on the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall or some of the downtown office buildings in Philadelphia, those jets would scramble and be able to intercept an airborne attack five, six, seven minutes faster than any of the nearest bases.

The personnel at Willow Grove would be helpful if, let’s say there was a credible threat to our transportation system. I might use the 111th National Guard to protect the subway system.

TTN: What advice would you give to college students who are looking to get involved in politics?

Rendell: The first piece of advice I’d give is: build a strong foundation in both the study of law and political science in school, as well as urban studies.

Those are things that help you build a strong foundation. … Number two, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and do menial tasks, helping out other candidates, or helping out a political party, or helping out a political action group. Almost everyone in politics started at the bottom. … I think the most important criteria for electoral success is that the voters believe you’re a real person and you’re honest with them.

If you make a mistake, say you made a mistake. People appreciate the fact that no one’s superhuman.

TTN: Do you have your eye on a bid for the White House in the future?

Rendell: No. I’ve been involved in so many presidential campaigns, helping candidates that the idea of running for president is not appealing to me at all. It’s one of the hardest, most difficult and surreal exercises you can go through.

If somebody who won the nomination said, “We’d like you to run for vice president,” I’m sure I wouldn’t say no. But I don’t think that’s gonna happen either. I don’t have any wild, overwhelming desire to be president.

TTN: What are your thoughts on the 2008 presidential election?

Rendell: It’s a little bit too soon to get a true gauge on it. I think Hillary Clinton is automatically the frontrunner, because of the Clinton name and her great appeal, and because she has the most money in the bank.

TTN: During your hiatus from political life before winning the mayoral race in 1992, did you ever think you’d find yourself filling the office of Governor of Pennsylvania in 2005?

Rendell: Nah. I was at that time concentrating on whether or not I wanted to take another shot at becoming mayor [after losing in 1987 to Wilson Goode]. I never looked beyond there. If there weren’t term limits in Philadelphia, I’d probably still be the mayor and not the governor.

Gov. Ed Rendell knows that funding for the university and transportation are a large problem.

Rendell empathized with student concerns about state funding for public transportation and the university, and touched on other issues of national and state-wide importance.

Last year, students across the Philadelphia area winced as the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority announced plans to raise fare rates and cut weekend service because of a staggering budget deficit. After the state legislature failed to intervene, Rendell put aside $412 million in federal money intended for highway construction to temporarily bail out SEPTA and the other public transit systems in Pennsylvania.

“I just flexed highway and bridge construction money over to mass transit, so that we could stabilize the situation and there would be no layoffs, no service cuts or fare increases,” Rendell said. “I’ve gotten criticized for that by the road builders, but actually we were able to increase the money available to highways and bridges as well.”

In addition to the financial bailout for public transit, Rendell also established the Transportation Funding Reform Commission in order to monitor SEPTA and its money more closely.

The money will hold the state’s cash-strapped public transit systems over until 2007, when Rendell hopes a dedicated funding scheme will have been implemented by the state government.

“The legislature is going to have to revisit mass transit and it’s going to have to do something to put SEPTA and Pittsburgh’s transportation system and the other 27 around the state on much firmer footing,” Rendell said. “For the time being, we’re OK.”

SEPTA recently reported that because of skyrocketing gas prices during the first six months of the year, daily ridership has increased by over 10,000 trips.

Another institution that has recently had problems getting proper funding from Harrisburg is the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a system of 14 state-owned universities. Temple is a commonwealth university that receives state funding.

Rendell noted that students at Temple and elsewhere in Pennsylvania now have more money available in financial aid, thanks to a deal his administration struck with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.

“PHEAA put $75 million more a year into our college grant program for students who take out a combination of loans and grants,” said Rendell. “Upping the amount of grants that were available cushioned the blow of increased tuitions.”

The annual cuts in funding for Pennsylvania’s state schools come at a time when a nationwide focus on the importance of workforce development has inspired increases in money for community colleges in the state.

“We have a strange system,” Rendell said. “The state [universities] have taken a hit – although last year they didn’t get a cut,” Rendell said. “I wish that we would do more for higher education across the board.”

For a full transcipt of the interview, click here.

John Paul Titlow can be reached at

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