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Taxpayers on the hook for $1M more for Consol Energy Center lease

| Tuesday, July 8, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Taxpayers will pay almost $1 million more for the Consol Energy Center lease to the Pittsburgh Penguins as part of a budget-related bill the Senate approved on Tuesday and sent to Gov. Tom Corbett for signature or veto.

HARRISBURG — Taxpayers will pay almost $1 million more for the Consol Energy Center lease to the Pittsburgh Penguins as part of a budget-related bill the Senate approved on Tuesday and sent to Gov. Tom Corbett for signature or veto.

A 2007 arena deal received state backing as part of a 30-year package to keep the National Hockey League team in Pittsburgh with an Uptown stadium. Under a deal brokered by ex-Gov. Ed Rendell, a number of public and private entities agreed to pay the lease held by the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority.

Corbett's press secretary Jay Pagni said the state must pay $5.6 million over the next five years — $946,000 more than anticipated in 2007. State taxpayers must absorb the increase because of a shortfall resulting from two downgrades of the bond insurer's credit rating and an increase in the variable interest rate, he said.

Mary Conturo, the SEA's executive director, did not return calls for comment.

The money will be transferred from the Gaming Economic Development and Tourism Fund to the General Fund for distribution.

The state fiscal code, which directs spending throughout the budget, adds a number of seemingly unrelated provisions, from gas regulation to a $10 surcharge on filing certain state court documents. It directs education spending and Medicaid funding. Senators passed the bill 26-22.

Lawmakers last week sent a $29.1 billion budget to Corbett, who refused to sign it. He has until Friday to act.

Legislative leaders of both parties declined to provide a list of names and locations set to receive millions of dollars for projects contained in the bill. The bill's vague language means taxpayers would find it difficult to determine who gets grants, the Tribune-Review reported on Tuesday.

“Sorry, House Democrats have never seen such a list,” Bill Patton, a spokesman for the caucus, said about the projects.

House GOP spokesman Stephen Miskin had said he would attempt to provide a list, but did not produce one.

The Senate added the projects in June. Most are described by the general type of entity and the class of municipality where located. They include $250,000 for a mobile child advocacy center and $500,000 to a community college in a fourth-class county with population of 175,000-190,000. Nine of the state's 67 counties are classified as fourth-class counties.

Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, called the bill “a fine example of secrecy and skullduggery.”

“We should be ashamed to run the state in this manner,” Ferlo said.

Critics said the grants are reminiscent of so-called walking-around-money, or WAMs, that legislative leaders for decades tucked into the budgets of executive branch agencies and doled out to rank-and-file members for discretionary disbursement.

Ferlo said he doesn't oppose WAMs — only hypocrisy about them.

“As usual, the fiscal code has become a vehicle for WAMs,” Ferlo said.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said the bill's language is typical.

“It's written in a legalistic way … to withstand judicial scrutiny,” Pileggi said. Eventually, if the grants are awarded, they will become “public record,” he said.

Pileggi suggested it's not difficult to discern the locations of projects. The bill was open to amendments and its contents posted online as H.B. 278, he said.

Asked how many grants were for his district, Pileggi said: “I don't have a list committed to memory. ... I couldn't estimate.”

“Share the wealth,” Ferlo told senators.

Ferlo said the top two leaders of each chamber will split $5 million for an undisclosed purpose. Miskin, with the House GOP, said that money is for legislative parking in Harrisburg.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, indicated he didn't have a list describing the projects, but said: “They're not WAMs. They're not embedded. They're not earmarks.”

Grants for Philadelphia, the only first-class city, and for Allegheny County, the only second-class county, are easy to discern.

Pileggi steered reporters to “the executive branch” for identification of projects set for funding.

“That's quite disingenuous,” Pagni said. “Those are legislative earmarks. Since they originated in the Legislature, the best place to get them is from the Legislature.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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