HARRISBURG - During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Tom Corbett made the funding of an Arlen Specter library in Philadelphia the punch line of a campaign ad about wasteful government spending.

Think of that funding, Corbett said in the television ad, "next time you hear we have to raise taxes because there's nothing left to cut."

Now, the joke may be on him.

This week, Gov. Corbett signed off on a $1.9 million state grant for the library that will house Specter's papers and memorabilia - along with an office for the former Pennsylvania senator.

Corbett's spokesman said the governor had no choice on this or about 700 other grants approved during the final year of Gov. Ed Rendell's administration.

"There were legal obligations," said Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley. Corbett "reviewed it very carefully, and lawyers made the determinations that the recipients had fulfilled the requirements of the contract made under the previous administration."

The 2010 decision to award Philadelphia University the grant prompted outcry from government critics, who saw it as a prime example of political pork.

Rendell at the time defended the project, named for his longtime friend and mentor - along with a grant for the John P. Murtha Center for Public Policy at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, named for a late Democratic congressman who knew a thing or two about pork - saying both projects and others on his list were important economic-development generators.

The Specter library grant, one of two the university received from the state in 2010, is to be used to renovate the historic Roxboro House on the campus in East Falls, a neighborhood that has been home to both Rendell and Specter.

The nonpartisan center will educate and inform policymakers, citizens, scholars, and students through classes, lectures, research, and outreach programs, the school said.

"Philadelphia University is pleased to be the steward of Sen. Specter's historically significant archival materials," school president Stephen Spinelli Jr. said in a statement Thursday. "The center will further scholarship and understanding of some of the most important historical events of our time for generations to come."

Formerly known as Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, the university has 3,500 students in more than 50 undergraduate and graduate programs.

The new library will include an office for Specter, who was Philadelphia district attorney before serving in the Senate as a Republican for almost 30 years. He then turned Democrat, but lost in the party's 2010 primary to U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak - who in turn lost the Senate seat to Republican Pat Toomey.

In December, the university took possession of Specter's extensive archive of manuscripts, memorabilia, and other materials associated with his career in public office.

Preliminary work, including repairs, architecture planning, and site surveys, is in progress at Roxboro House, the university said.

The second $2 million state grant helped cover the renovation of the university's SEED (Sustainability, Energy Efficiency, and Design) Center. Both grants are from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP), a $4 billion state borrowing initiative. Begun in 1986 with $400 million, the program provides matching grants for economic projects ranging from hospital and college expansion to transportation and business development.

The announcement of the grant's approval comes as the RACP program falls under increased scrutiny. During Rendell's eight years in office, borrowing ballooned from $1.45 billion to $4 billion.

Corbett has not committed to any additional RACP projects since taking office a year ago, Harley said.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) wants to significantly roll back the state's borrowing and target it at projects with the maximum number of jobs to be created; he also wants more local input on project selection.

This week, Turzai proposed a bill - which Corbett supports in concept - that would immediately reduce the state's debt ceiling by a half-billion dollars and gradually return borrowing to the pre-Rendell level of $1.5 billion over 20 years.

"The Specter library is a cry that the system needs reform," said Turzai's spokesman, Steve Miskin. "These projects should have substantial economic impact, not give a former senator a place to park a desk."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.