2009-06-25 / Local & State

New Light Shed On Lawmakers' Secretive Grants

By Marc Levy ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Tens of millions of tax dollars that support Pennsylvania lawmakers' favored causes are directed by legislative leaders through a secretive process that appears to benefit some leaders' constituents the most, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Never-before-released records obtained by the AP through a request filed under the new state Right-to-Know law revealed some counties that are home to top legislators were targeted to receive disproportionately more legislative grant money during the last half of 2008.

The records, released by the governor's office, show legislators lodged special grant requests totaling more than $110 million between July to December - more than $430,000 on average for each of Pennsylvania's 253 lawmakers.

The money enables lawmakers to take credit for bringing home checks to their hospitals, water and sewer authorities, civic and cultural organizations, clubs, schools, local governments and police and fire departments.

Top legislators who agreed to speak to AP insisted the grants are distributed fairly.

But the AP analysis found that tiny Greene County, 56th out of 67 Pennsylvania counties in population and home of last year's House Democratic leader, Bill DeWeese, was slated to receive more than $3 million, or about $82 per person. That made Greene County No. 1 in grant dollars per person and No. 6 in total dollars.

No. 2 in dollars per person was Carbon County - home of House Speaker Keith McCall, who was the Democratic whip last year - with an average of $50 per person in requests. Carbon County, 40th in population, also was expected to receive about $3 million - making it No. 7 in overall dollars.

On the Republican side, House GOP grant requests helped put Jefferson and Delaware counties - respectively the homes of Minority Leader Sam Smith and Mario Civera, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee - in line for more money than most counties with similar populations.

In the Senate, Democrats requested outsized portions for the home counties of last year's ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Gerald LaValle of Beaver County, and his successor, Jay Costa of Allegheny County. Similar patterns were not as evident in the grants requested by the Senate GOP.

Philadelphia, the state's most populous city and county, has numerous important regional institutions and several influential lawmakers among the 35 who represent it - and it shows. It was slated to get well over onequarter of the total grant dollars, even though it represents just 12 percent of the state's population.

In Congress, the practice of lawmakers rewarding their home districts with tax money paid largely by people who live elsewhere is ingrained as "earmarks.'' But unlike Pennsylvania's hushhush process, most federal earmarks clearly specify how much money is involved and identify the lawmakers who requested them.

Pennsylvania's budget does not specify the money that is set aside for legislators' special projects. It also does not link grants to individual legislators, or groups of legislators, who sought the money.

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.

Once the total amount available for the grants in the budget is hammered out behind closed doors, legislative leaders sift through requests from their caucus members and submit selected ones, along with their own, to the governor's office. Executive branch agencies match the requests to applications filed by the intended recipients for more than a dozen programs that are flush with money for the grants.

A check is cut as long as an application meets technical requirements, which is usually the case, but the process can take months.

DeWeese and McCall turned down repeated requests to answer questions about the grants for their districts, while Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow, D-Lackawanna, said his caucus' requests reflect their priorities, not political influence.

Smith would not address grant requests for his district, but said in a separate interview that any disparity in district-bydistrict grant requests is likely due to a legislator's ability or willingness to advocate for projects.

"I try to be fair in what recommendations go on to the administration and, in most cases, it's really up to the member to kind of convey the importance of it to their district,'' Smith said.

Pennsylvania's Legislature - No. 2 nationally in the number of members and operating costs - is not alone in funneling money to legislators' pet causes.

Although many states do not give legislators their own pipeline to the state treasury, some that do still make it difficult to see where all the money is going while others have curtailed the practice or made it more transparent, according to an Associated Press review.

In New York, $170 million in legislative grants that heavily favored the districts of majority party members are now disclosed with the name of the sponsoring lawmaker attached, thanks to public pressure and scandals.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine froze a state legislative grant program altogether when it became clear that the money disproportionately benefited the districts of majority leaders, among others.

The release of the documents in Pennsylvania comes at a time when two former powerful Democratic lawmakers have had runins with the law over the use of the grant money.

Former Sen. Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia is awaiting sentencing for his February conviction on 137 corruption counts, including the misuse of money from a nonprofit that he founded and partially financed with the grants. Former Rep. Michael Veon of Beaver County has been charged with committing similar crimes.

In the past, the governor's office considered the Legislature's grant requests to be confidential. Last year, a senior administration lawyer argued that such records should remain confidential even under the new Right-to- Know Law. The state Office of Open Records contended the records are public.

After the newly strengthened law took effect Jan. 1, the governor's office released the records in response to the AP request.

Still, much remains secret.

For instance, the newly released documents do not connect each of the 2,300-plus grant requests to a legislator, or group of legislators, that sought them. Instead, the grants are generally listed by the caucus that requested them and the county of the recipient.

Also, legislative leaders do not reveal who gets what, even in closed-door group caucus meetings.

The most information an individual member might get is a phone call from a leader's office telling them how much money is available for their individual district, legislators say.

"I know that some members get more than others,'' said Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York. "I know there's members who get probably more than I get. That information has never been available to us as to who gets what, none of us has ever gotten that list.''

Added former Rep. Steven R. Nickol: "Most rank-and-file knew that some members, shall we say, were more equal than others.''

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