2011-03-17 / Local & State

Gov. OKs Grants He Pledged To End

By MARC LEVY
ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration has approved more than $48 million in pet-project grant money requested by state legislators before he took office, even though Corbett had vowed during his campaign to end such grants dubbed WAMs for “walkingaround money.’’

A spokesman for Corbett’s Department of Community and Economic Development said Thursday that the requests were originally submitted under Democratic former Gov. Ed Rendell.

The spokesman, Steve Kratz, told The Associated Press the new Republican administration felt an obligation to approve some of the applications because they had been recommended by legislators. It had an obligation to approve others that had signed contracts, he said.

Kratz said no applications submitted after Corbett was sworn in Jan. 18 are being processed. The grants are typically open to applications from local government agencies and nonprofit groups. However, approval of an application under Rendell tended to be contingent on whether a top legislator recommended it to the governor’s office.

All told, the Corbett administration provided a list of more than 1,200 grant applications it was approving from programs housed in the department. The biggest approval was for $5 million for a nonprofit-run statewide program called the Fresh Food Financing Initiative that helps finance supermarkets, grocery stores, farmers markets and other food outlets where communities are underserved, according to project details provided by the department. The grant was originally requested by House Democrats.

Three projects are supposed to get $1 million, including the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., a nonprofit group in the Philadelphia district of Rep. Dwight Evans. Evans was the House Appropriations Committee chairman until November, when his fellow House Democrats elected challenger Joe Markosek of Allegheny County to take over the powerful post.

The money is spent on everything from ball fields and festivals to police cruisers and youth sports equipment. The minimum grant amount is $5,000.

The grants have existed in one form or another for at least a couple of decades, built around the concept of providing the Legislature with a pot of money to spend as it sees fit. Legislators have requested more than $260 million in grant money from the governor’s office since July 1, 2008, according to an AP analysis of documents released by the Rendell administration.

That’s an average of more than $1 million for each of the state’s 253 House and Senate districts over three years.

In his successful campaign for governor, Corbett aired a TV ad attacking WAMs, in which he said, “The first thing we’re going to do is put a stake in the heart of the WAMs program. Millions of dollars spent on legislative pet projects with little oversight.’’

Kratz said Corbett’s 2011- 12 budget, released Tuesday, does not include any money for the grants in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Like Corbett, Rendell routinely slashed money for the grants in his budgets, but Rendell typically agreed later in closed- door negotiations with top lawmakers to reinsert money for their requests.

Decision-making on how the grants are distributed never sees the light of day – there is no public hearing, no publicly available formula that divides money up geographically.

Lawmakers generally defend the grants as helping to fill needs in their districts, while top legislators played down their influence in deciding which applications get administration approval. They maintain that a competitive application process overseen by an executivebranch agency drives the grant awards, while legislators merely advocate for a constituent that files an application.

Integrity is ensured by grant program guidelines and a publicly accessible contract, legislative leaders say.

The grants also enable rank-and-file lawmakers to take credit for bringing home state taxpayer dollars, while the recommendation process gives a handful of top lawmakers outsized influence over directing disproportionate sums of money to their own districts, according to an AP analysis.

On top of that, top legislators have avoided answering some questions about the grant money, such as where or how much grant money is tucked in the budget, and sometimes even kept rank-and-file lawmakers in the dark about how much grant money is in the budget.

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