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WAM slam? Stay tuned

HARRISBURG – A notable victim of this year’s recession-driven budget cuts is supposedly the tens of millions of tax dollars that legislative leaders have long controlled through a secretive process to underwrite lawmakers’ favored causes.

But the secrecy that has always cloaked the taxpayer-financed grants is also fueling skepticism about whether legislative leaders have truly relinquished their power to funnel funds back home for hospitals, water and sewer authorities, civic and cultural organizations, clubs, schools, and police and fire departments.

”Let’s wait just a few months and we’ll have plenty to see, particularly as we approach the primary election and general election of 2010,” said Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a group that advocates fiscal conservatism in state government.

Pennsylvania’s legislative grants – known colloquially as ”WAMs,” for walking-around money – have existed in one form or another for a couple of decades, built around the concept of providing the Legislature with a pot of money to spend as it sees fit.

Gov. Ed Rendell’s Oct. 9 signature on the main appropriations bill in the 2009-10 budget came 101 days past the start of the fiscal year as the politically divided Legislature struggled over how to resolve state government’s multibillion-dollar shortfall.

Both the Democratic governor and top legislators insist that the budget contains no grant money set aside for legislators’ pet projects. House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, said he broke the news to top municipal officials in his district in a recent meeting.

”I told them, ‘Sorry, the money went into lines to help people,’ to cover the socially vulnerable populations of people that we all along said we were fighting for,” Eachus said. ”These weren’t just talking points.”

However, Rendell’s top aides and top legislators have repeatedly refused to reveal how much grant money was tucked into the 2008-09 budget. That number that remains the subject of much speculation.

”It’s hard for me to believe that they would go from somewhere from between $200 million to $800 million down to zero,” said Barry Kauffman, the executive director of the citizen advocacy group Common Cause Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Peter J. Daley, D-California, said his ability to provide smaller grants for the communities he serves will be impacted though the loss of WAMs.

Daley, however, said the loss was a necessary cutback.

“I don’t think it’s a substantial portion of what all of the legislators do. There are a lot of other projects we work on,” he said. “I think it’s something that could be sacrificed. We’ve known it was a problem from the very beginning of the budget. When the economy first took a spin, everybody said one of the things that needed to go was the WAMs.”

Daley said he is focused on finding ways to replace the money that will be lost.

“I’ve been very successful in bringing millions of dollars of WAMs back to the district,” he said. “I have some very big projects in the Mon Valley that are contingent on us getting some initiative grant money to help them.

“But, we in Washington County have something that we’re working on with the gaming money, the fair share money. We’re working on a proposal that each municipality would get a minimum of $25,000, which almost offsets the WAMs. That’s a way of supplementing it.”

State Rep. R. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen, said losing the pool of money would hurt service organizations and smaller community groups that benefit more from the pull long-time legislators have.

“I think as you get more seniority, sometimes you’re able to get more money,” Harhai said. “I think it’s going to be detrimental to some of these smaller groups that rely on it; a lot of the military groups.

“It’s a decent part of what we do in getting money out to these groups that don’t have any other funding. In some cases, it saves them.”

Harhai said it has been beneficial to have a flexible funding source that can be spread to many communities.

“I’ve used WAM money to finish small water and sewer projects, for municipalities and providing money for police revolvers and cars,” he said. “It’s very helpful in a lot of cases for just some smaller things, for libraries especially. I’ve helped school bands to purchase equipment and different athletic departments within a school district. One year, I received over $100,000 and dispersed it equally to 23 fire departments. To some of the smaller fire departments, it was a lifesaver.”

Harhai said competing for other grants will become more difficult, although it is too early to tell how the change will affect his district.

“Is there anything to supplement it• I don’t know of anything yet,” he said. “That was one of the things about cutting the budget that was going to be tough. Now were in damage control mode.

“Just that little bit of money; that goes a long way. Its’ not life or death, but it’s certainly helped a lot of ways. But, that’s the way it’s going to be

State Sen. J. Barry Stout, D-Bentleyville, said be believes WAMs are dead in the new state budget.

He said any pockets of money for grants and loans are solely distributed on a competitive bases – and based on need, not politics.

“It is not improper for a legislator to advocate to a state agency on behalf of a project in his district if he knows that the project is needed and that the community cannot afford to fund it,” Stout said. “That’s what we’re elected to do.”

The ranking member of the senate transportation committee, he often advocates the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for road or bridge improvements.

He noted, for example, that he advocated for PennDOT to pay for a retaining wall along Route 837 in Donora. That $2 million project as unveiled in ribbon-cutting ceremonies Friday.

Never-before-released records obtained by the AP through requests filed under the new state Right-to-Know Law showed that legislators lodged special grant requests totaling more than $180 million since July 1, 2008 – more than $700,000 on average for each of Pennsylvania’s 253 lawmakers.

That figure is expected to rise.

Aides to Rendell said they expect more special grant requests from legislators to arrive shortly, because the administration withheld some discretionary money allocated in the 2008-09 budget during the lengthy budget stalemate. Some of that money, if not all, remains available to pay for legislative grant requests, administration officials said.

As of last week, more than $100 million in taxpayer money set aside for legislators’ grant requests was still sitting in state accounts, according to officials from the departments of Community and Economic Development, Environmental Protection, Health and Public Welfare. Some, but not all, of the money is pledged to certain grant requests, they said.

An AP analysis of the grant requests in the last half of 2008 – when 228 of 253 legislative seats were filled by voters – found that some counties that are home to top legislators were targeted to receive disproportionately more legislative grant money.

In every budget negotiated in recent years, the amount of money that the Legislature receives is a topic of heavy discussion behind closed doors. Legislative leaders who sit in on those negotiations do not tell rank-and-file lawmakers how much grant money is available, or who gets what.

In the days leading up to the agreement that ended the stalemate last week, top House Democrats declared their opposition to the inclusion of any legislative grant money in the 2009-10 budget, and they accused top Senate budget negotiators of cutting a side deal with Rendell to set aside $12 million for grants.

Republicans denied the accusation, and an Oct. 7 letter from Rendell declaring that he would not tolerate such a thing assuaged the concerns of House Democrats – but not those of citizen advocates.

”I’m suspicious of any line item that got an increase,” said Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, a Harrisburg-based citizen advocacy group that says the grants are unconstitutional. ”They bury these WAMs all over the state government.”

Eliminating or substantially reducing the legislative grants is likely to prompt legislators to line up at agencies that underwrite projects for which they might be able to claim credit, Potts said.

For instance, the state’s tax on slot-machine gambling feeds $25 million a year in grants for volunteer fire companies. Also, a state panel made up of appointees by Rendell and top legislators is expected to approve hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans this year for water and sewer improvements, economic development and alternative energy projects.

”You can pretty much count on legislators trying to ensure that agencies find their constituents more worthy than those in somebody else’s district,” Potts said.


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