2010-07-15 / Local & State

Pa. Lawmakers Tapped Grants While Deficit Grew


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Even as the state government staggered under a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall that crimped public services and forced layoffs, the Legislature continued to tap a hush-hush pool of grant money set aside for lawmakers’ pet projects back home.

All told, legislators have requested about $210 million since the money was approved in July 2008, according to an Associated Press analysis of documents released by the governor’s office under a Right-to-Know request.

That works out to $830,000 in taxpayer money for each of the state’s 253 legislative districts, where the grants are spent on everything from playground equipment to police cruisers, and festivals to ball fields.

The grants – nicknamed WAMs, for “walking-around money’’ – enable lawmakers to take credit for bringing home the bacon and give a handful of top lawmakers outsized influence over directing disproportionate sums of money to their own districts.

Between October and April, as tax collections stubbornly lagged projections by about $1 billion, legislators’ grant requests increased by about $30 million.

The just-signed $28 billion budget for 2010-11 appears to set aside tens of millions of dollars more for the grants. Following a three-month budget stalemate and a multibillion-dollar deficit last year, top legislators say they decided against inserting more money for the grants into the 2009-10 budget that passed in October.

Gov. Ed Rendell has not stopped approving the grant requests.

“We must and should keep this commitment,’’ Rendell’s chief of staff Steve Crawford said two weeks ago. “It’s a matter of trust and honor. If the Legislature wanted to use the money to reduce the deficit, that’s something we would be more than willing to discuss.’’

Top legislators play down their influence. They say a competitive application process drives the grant awards, while they merely advocate for a constituent that files an application. Integrity is ensured by grant program guidelines and a publicly accessible contract, they say.

It can take many months for an applicant to get the money; an AP analysis of the earliest grant requests by lawmakers found that the vast majority are approved.

The grants can be as small as $5,000 to fix up a nonprofit or township office building, or $2 million for this year’s and next year’s West Oak Lane Jazz Festival in Philadelphia. Some grants patch holes in the social safety net, such as helping a food pantry buy food.

But decision-making on how the grants are distributed never sees the light of day – there is no public hearing, no publicly available formula to follow.

On top of that, top legislators tend to avoid answering questions about the grants, such as where or how much grant money is tucked in the budget.

Questions e-mailed in mid-June to staff in each of the Legislature’s four caucuses went unanswered, except by Senate Republicans.

That response, from the office of Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, RDelaware, pointed out that the 2009-10 budget dramatically reduced many grant programs.

Told that his caucus had lodged more than $50 million in grant requests over the past two years, Senate President Joe Scarnati, RJefferson, reacted with surprise.

His caucus, he said, has been diligent in trying to direct money toward crucial services as the recession pummeled tax collections.

Approached recently in the Capitol, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dwight Evans, DPhiladelphia, said he was in a rush and could not stop to answer questions.

Asked just before he ducked into the House chamber why not use the grant money to reduce the state’s deficit, he responded, “We are, we’re trying to do it all, we’re trying to get it all done, all at once.’’

Evans and the House Democrats requested $55 million over two years. Amazingly, the Legislature’s smallest caucus, Senate Democrats, requested the most from the governor’s office, $59 million. House Republicans requested nearly $45 million.

The grants 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.

The amount requested in the past two years might be small compared to the whole state budget – but it is larger than some entire state agency budgets, including the offices of attorney general, auditor general and treasurer.

The reputation of the grants is such that the Democrat and Republican running to replace Rendell as governor – Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and state Attorney General Tom Corbett – are both pledging to end the process.

In a position paper, Onorato said the grants “have no transparency and are seen as a way of rewarding legislators for voting a certain way.’’

Corbett aired a TV ad earlier this year in which he promised to “put a stake in the heart of the WAMs program. Millions of dollars spent on legislators’ pet projects with little oversight.’’

Although he acknowledges occasional cases of “WAM abuse,’’ Rendell says the grants typically fund worthy causes.

All the same, each year Rendell cuts the grants from the budget he proposes, and each year – except, supposedly, last year – legislative leaders shoehorn them back in.

“If I were king, they wouldn’t be there,’’ Rendell said Tuesday, “but I’m not.’’

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