Legislative leaders to advise PennDOT secretary in spending $40 million of transportation money
HARRISBURG — The $2.3 billion transportation bill awaiting Gov. Tom Corbett's signature funnels $40 million next year to a state agency controlled by legislative leaders for projects, which critics claim are a form of so-called “walking-around money.”
The bill stipulates the money going to the Commonwealth Financing Authority is for transportation-related projects.
“It sounds perilously close to the bad old days of WAMs,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, who argued against the discretionary money to lawmakers' pet projects for decades.
Separately, the PennDOT secretary gets $40 million to spend on projects — after consultation with legislative leaders, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Republicans.
“The final decision is the secretary's,” he said.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who voted against the bill, considers the money for PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch's disbursement a WAM. It's too much money and power given to one individual, said Metcalfe, R-Cranberry.
Corbett pledged to get rid of WAMs as a candidate in 2010, but his spokesman Steve Chizmar said of this money: “We don't consider them WAMs.”
Corbett has said he'll sign the bill on Monday.
Walking-around money has been part of the legislative process off and on since the 1970s. Typically, lawmakers tuck discretionary grants into the budgets of executive branch agencies — some years as much as $200 million. Legislative leaders control disbursement of the money.
Critics say WAMs helped leaders garner votes and keep rank-and-file-lawmakers in line.
Schoch said he has wide discretion on state spending from the Motor License Fund for needed flexibility on key projects. Asked whether anyone promised to include projects in this bill, or move up planned work on projects, in return for votes, he said: “Absolutely not.”
The $40 million is “money that the secretary has at his discretion to make projects whole,” Chizmar said. “In some smaller counties, they may lack the funds necessary to complete larger projects. This can help with that.”
Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, in floor debate claimed the transportation bill contained WAMs.
Metcalfe charged that road projects were offered to get legislators to vote for a key amendment, which the House shot down on Monday and then approved on Tuesday when several lawmakers flipped their votes. The amendment raises revenue through a wholesale gasoline tax increase expected to be passed on to consumers.
Metcalfe said two legislators told him that they would vote for the bill because they were promised projects. He did not name them but suggested that PennDOT made the promise.
The turnaround on the bill “suggests there were some deals made,” Kauffman said.
Lawmakers were shown publicly released lists of projects that could be completed with additional revenue, Chizmar said.
“In some cases, maybe, we said projects could be moved up in the process,” Chizmar said. “There weren't discussions saying, ‘If you vote for it, we'll do this.' ”
Traditionally, executive branch members seeking votes “talk about projects for districts,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “There's nothing illegal or untoward about it.”
Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, said the idea behind grants to the Commonwealth Financing Authority “was to have some legislative input but overall accountability and set standards.”
In an earlier Senate version of the bill, the four House and Senate majority and minority chairs of transportation committees would have considered grants individually, Miskin said.
“We negotiated for what we thought was a more open process,” he said.
PennDOT said the authority would receive an estimated $40 million in 2014-15, then $61 million for two fiscal years, then roughly $67 million in 2017-18.
Legislative leaders of both parties appoint four of the Commonwealth Finance Authority's seven members; the governor names three. Each legislative appointee has veto power on projects. All four leaders' appointees must cast unanimous support for a project to advance. Five votes are required for project approval. The authority was set up under former Gov. Ed Rendell to disburse money from his “economic stimulus” plan.
The board's makeup lends itself to potential deal-making, Kauffman said.
The authority “receives applications and reviews them to ensure the applications meet the qualifications of the guidelines of the program” as established by its board, said Steve Kratz, spokesman for the Department of Community and Economic Development, which houses the authority.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.