2009-10-22 / Local & State

Critics Skeptical About Fate Of Lawmakers’ Grants

By Marc Levy ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – 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 p p g, p ,j 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.

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, since 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.

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.

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