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Time for GOP to end WAMs

(State legislative) leaders use WAM grants to essentially blackmail members into voting the way they want on key legislation.

The skyrocketing cost of government was a major factor in the GOP’s sweeping victories in last month’s congressional elections. Much attention focused on earmarks — the practice of legislators inserting favored projects into the budget without undergoing the normal appropriations process.

In reaction to the public outcry against earmarks, the U.S. Senate Republican Conference voted to ban the procedure.

National Republicans have heard the voters on pork-barrel spending. Will their counterparts at the state level follow in their footsteps?

Incoming Gov. Tom Corbett campaigned against Walking Around Money, or “WAMs,” which are the state-level version of earmarks. Corbett attacked WAMs as having “little to no accountability and oversight” and said WAM spending has “spiraled out of control.”

Corbett will take office with his party holding large majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. With opposition to WAMs a core part of many legislators’ campaigns, the GOP has no excuse when it comes to banning the practice.

Plus, WAMs are a flagrant violation of the state Constitution. A 1995 state Supreme Court ruling verified that the process is unconstitutional.

But defiant legislators simply renamed WAMs “legislative initiative grants” and continued the practice under the new moniker. That, however, doesn’t make them any more constitutional. Tim Potts, president of Democracy Rising PA explains: “They’re unconstitutional because once the legislature appropriates money to an executive agency, the legislature may not directly or indirectly determine what happens to those funds. That, of course, is the WAM process.”

The process and amount of money spent by state lawmakers on WAMs is cloaked in secrecy. Estimates of how much is spent range from $65.5 million — reported by the website Pennsylvania Independent — to the over $100 million per year claimed by state Rep. Curt Schroder (R-Chester County), an earmark opponent.

There is little bipartisan cooperation in Harrisburg except for feasting on pork. According to The Associated Press, in recent years Senate Democrats have submitted $59 million in WAM requests and House Democrats $55 million. During the same time frame, Senate Republicans sought $50 million in pork spending; House Republicans, $45 million.

Even worse, when it comes to allocating WAMs, not all House and Senate districts are created equal. Legislative leaders feast on bacon, while backbenchers settle for table scraps. The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported the district represented by former House Speaker Bill DeWeese was number one in receiving WAM grants — $3 million per year, for an average of $82 per person. Current Speaker Keith McCall’s district came in second at $50.

Not only are WAMs a perversion of the spending process, but they pollute the legislative process. Leaders use WAM grants to essentially blackmail members into voting the way they want on key legislation.

Lawmakers who toe the leadership line are rewarded with WAMs for their districts; those who are independent — who represent their constituents rather than leadership — often have their requests denied.

The “sacred cow” aspect of WAMs was evident in this year’s budget process. With the state facing a massive budget deficit, the Department of Community and Economic Development, which administers Legislative Initiative Grants, received a 23 percent budget increase — an additional $52 million.

For both symbolic and substantive reasons, the incoming GOP majority must follow Corbett’s lead, comply with the state Constitution and finally put an end to WAMs. It is a crucial first step in the long road toward restoring integrity to — and public confidence in — Pennsylvania’s badly tarnished Legislature.

Lowman S. Henry, a former Westmoreland County GOP chair, is CEO of the Lincoln Institute in Harrisburg. Contact him at: [email protected] .


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