HARRISBURG — Sitting on the patio of the governor’s mansion in a blazing sun, Gov. Ed Rendell said Saturday he won’t back off of his proposal to raise the state income tax and will continue to fight to spend more on public education.
He made the comments in an exclusive interview with the Tribune-Review, in which he said there’s a “strong” chance he’ll sign a skeleton state budget on Tuesday to ensure state employees get paid and to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers to reach an agreement on a full 2009-2010 spending plan.
“I’m going to call, on Tuesday, for everyone to cancel their vacation plans,” said Rendell, sitting by a wading pool used primarily by his golden retrievers Maggie and Ginger. He’s written off his own nonhunting African safari vacation unless, as he put it, “lightning strikes” on a budget deal.
Taking the income tax hike off the table has been one demand of Senate Republicans, who say it would speed up negotiations.
Because there’s little support for it in the Legislature, why not publicly abandon it and search for other revenue options?
“It’s not off the table because it’s the best way to get this done,” Rendell said. He reiterates what he has repeatedly said at news conferences: He’ll consider other tax options.
A negotiating session is planned today with House and Senate leaders — a last-ditch effort to resolve things before House leaders and Rendell start what one analyst called the “doomsday scenario.”
Rendell at a news conference on Thursday invited me to spend the day with him — and work out. The visit provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at the governor’s activities in the midst of the worst budget crisis since 1991.
I showed up at the iron gates of the mansion, hit the intercom and said, “I’m here to work out with the governor.” An armed trooper met me and led me to the exercise room where Rendell was waiting. He climbed on the treadmill. I took the elliptical cross-trainer because I have a titanium knee.
On the TV — a real shocker: ESPN. Rendell’s an avid sports buff. We talk about the Major League Baseball trades and the NFL. There are two treadmills, a stationary bicycle, and the cross-trainer. There’s a bench press, loads of dumbbells and exercise balls. He says the room is used by troopers guarding the mansion and his wife, Marjorie.
Rendell, 65, jogged for about a half-hour. He’s lost 30 pounds over the past six weeks. He’s down to 230 pounds, and his goal is 200 pounds. He began a diet and work-out regimen when Marjorie, a federal judge, asked him how many overweight people he knew at age 80?
After the workout, he headed to the patio with an armful of paperwork and a diet cola. Rendell wore a faded blue Nemacolin Woodlands polo short, white shorts and black loafers. The dogs alternately rolled in the mulch and jumped in the pool.
He says he’s been able to lose weight despite the budget impasse, protests by state workers and an Internet campaign to impeach him. At a recent protest in Harrisburg, a state worker held a sign that said, “Pay Up Fat Boy.” He recently had all-time low voter approval ratings in a statewide poll.
“If you check the other states it’s the same thing,” Rendell said about the protests.
“I didn’t get elected by people to tell them what they want to hear.”
Rendell, who says he’s through running for office, told me he doesn’t care if his approval rating drops to zero. He said he cares about investments in education and in programs that help people. But he recognizes an anti-tax mood.
“People in the country want great education and great services but they don’t want to pay for it,” he says.
The budget gambit he says likely would involve using his line-item veto powers to “blueline” all government expenditures except salaries and basic operations such as state police and corrections that keep people safe.
It’s similar to 2003 when he vetoed education funding, and it took until December to finalize a budget and approve a 10 percent boost in the income tax — yet far more drastic because counties, cities and agencies depending on state money would get none.
“The pressure is going to build,” Rendell said.
Donna Cooper, secretary of policy, brings a stack of budget documents for the governor to go over. Once called the “pit bull” of the administration, she looks anything but in a denim skirt, sneakers and black tank top.
Rendell is looking at other options to close the state’s $3.2 billion deficit, but he’s frustrated by Senate Republicans who are insisting that there be no “broad based tax” increase.
A wide range of one-time revenue and tax options were presented to them on Friday. Today’s meeting is a last-ditch effort to negotiate an agreement. Rendell says he’s cut all he can cut.
“We tried very hard to meet them on a spending number,” he said.