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Grants aren't the same old payouts, Corbett says

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Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, 11:36 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG — No one knows “walking-around money” better than state Rep. Dwight Evans, who doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in discretionary grants during decades as the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Critics demonized the grants known as WAMs, but they served a vital function as “grease” to help push through controversial bills, the Philadelphia lawmaker writes in his just-released book, “Making Ideas Matter,” published by the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

When he needed a former lawmaker's vote for a $2.8 billion tax increase in 1991, Evans granted $500,000 to build a statue of Gen. George Marshall in Uniontown, where the general was born. He describes giving money for what he considered nonpolitical uses, such as $1 million for a water project in a community in Fayette County, where people “were literally begging for water.”

Evans acknowledges doling out about $10 million a year himself, separate from caucus initiatives. It got to the point, he writes, that members “considered me as an ATM machine.” WAMs morphed into various forms, disappearing at times in state government.

But in the latest clamor over WAMs, Gov. Tom Corbett and legislative aides say it is wrong to call grants in the $2.3 billion transportation bill that Corbett signed on Nov. 25 “walking-around money.”

The $60 million that the bill could eventually direct to the Commonwealth Financing Authority, a panel controlled by legislative leaders, doesn't squarely fit Evans' definition of old-style WAMs.

“You can call it a WAM; you can call it a legislative initiative; you can call it whatever — there is legislative input, but there is more accountability and transparency,” he told the Tribune-Review.

What's in a name?

The authority, or CFA, meets publicly to approve or reject projects, lists approved projects on its website and makes applications available for public review, said Erik Arneson, a Senate Republican spokesman.

“That process is open and transparent by any measure and is far different than previous programs colloquially known as WAMs,” he said.

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, further argues that the transportation money will be a small slice of various CFA programs. WAMs, he said, left “no paper trail,” and these grants will be vetted and publicly approved.

Two lawmakers at opposite ends of the political spectrum — conservative Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry and liberal Democratic Sen. Jim Ferlo of Highland Park — charged during floor debate that the transportation bill contained WAMs, pointing to the CFA money and millions in discretionary spending for the PennDOT secretary.

“I don't know how you argue (the money) is not a WAM,” Metcalfe said in an interview.

Steve Chizmar, a spokesman for Corbett, said the administration “has eliminated WAMs” and to suggest that such grants sneaked into the transportation bill is “disingenuous and inaccurate.”

The PennDOT secretary historically has had discretionary funding to meet transportation needs, officials said.

An earlier version of a Senate bill would have provided transportation committee chairmen with direct control over grants, Miskin said. He acknowledged those might have been considered WAMs. House negotiators removed that language.

Though the final bill twice failed in the House and was revived within 24 hours to win approval, there is no evidence any leaders promised grants in return for votes.

“I guess we'll see what projects are announced,” Metcalfe said.

Defining features

The phrase “walking-around money” for decades described a pool of money for lawmakers' pet projects, controlled by legislative leaders.

There is no standard definition of WAMs, which surfaced in the 1980s. A defining feature was their use: a way for leaders and governors to secure votes from rank-and-file legislators on budgets, tax increases and controversial measures.

Another characteristic is secrecy. Typically, there was no record of divvying up money; the grant would become public when a legislator announced a project.

Projects paid for with walking-around money usually lacked “merit analysis,” said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania.

“Should we be funding a horse trail in Montgomery County versus a soup kitchen in Allegheny County?” he said.

When he ran for governor, Corbett campaigned against WAMs. Analysts say WAMs were not part of his first three budgets, though discretionary spending of a different sort exists for development projects in capital budgets, in which governors choose from legislators' “wish lists.”

Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell during eight years in office spent more than $3 billion from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, which exists with some reforms added this year.

Evans never considered these grants to be WAMs, because local entities must provide matching money and the Governor's Budget Office reviewed them.

Former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge vowed to get rid of WAMs, but the practice returned in a different shape, with more transparency, in the 1990s.

“Generally speaking, we'd consider WAMs to be a pot of money that legislative leaders could dole out any way they wanted to,” said Nathan Benefield, an analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative policy group in Harrisburg. “Under that, CFA funding isn't strictly a WAM. They have an appointed board, with public meetings.”

Still, the think tank has concerns about funneling money through the authority, Benefield said, because “few voters have ever heard of the CFA, much less attend its meetings, and CFA bonds aren't counted against the state debt limit, allowing additional taxpayer-backed borrowing.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 |or bbumsted@tribweb.com. Staff writer Debra Erdley contributed.

 

 

 
 


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