In this time of fiscal distress when even Republicans are talking about raising taxes, when even Democrats are talking about cutting programs, and when Gov. Ed Rendell moans about the pain this budget will cause, there’s one thing none of them talked about. Not only did lawmakers not cut their own budgets significantly, but they gave themselves at least $129 million for their own “discretionary grants,” a.k.a. WAMs, or Walking Around Money.
One of the least accountable expenditures of state government, WAMs have taken hundreds of millions of dollars over the years that is not available to fund programs and agencies that are accountable and that ensure accountability elsewhere in state government. Click here for background about WAMs.
Yesterday, several state newspapers carried the latest revelations about WAMs in an article by Associated Press writer Marc Levy: PA lawmakers tapped grants while deficit grew , Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, July 11.
Among other ways in which WAMs are unaccountable, Levy reported, “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.”
Another element of hypocrisy is the semantic game lawmakers played last year at this time, claiming there were no WAMs in the 2009-10 state budget. According to administration sources, there was $120 million in WAMs last year carried over from the 2008-09 budget, some $55 million of which was spent in 2009-10.
Those same sources tell DR that $65 million was carried forward again this year, and the new state budget contains at least an additional $64 million in new money (some say $66 million), for a total of at least $129 million. Agencies have been told that all of the money must be “out the door” before Election Day.
Repeat after me: “WAMs are not intended to influence elections. WAMs are not intended to influence elections. WAMs are not…”
Lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell this month loudly and proudly made these cuts in the name of “fiscal responsibility:”
Attorney General, 3.3%
Auditor General, 4.3%
State Police, 4%
State health care centers, 6.9%
State parks, 7.3%
Department of Environmental Protection, 9.2%
Department of Labor and Industry, 10%
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, 10.7%
Agriculture Department, 11.7%
The $129 million in WAMs could restore all of those cuts and still have $75.8 million left over.
What else? It could restore last year’s cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection as concerns about Marcellus Shale drilling are becoming clearer and water supplies dirtier. It could restore cuts in human services at a time when the economy creates the greatest demand for those services.
Instead of spending $10 million to create a new and unnecessary Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, lawmakers could have restored $2.4 million of cuts in federal funding for drug and alcohol services. By all appearances, lawmakers are more interested in money for the bureaucracy than in money for the people the programs are supposed to serve.
Or that $129 million could go to the Rainy Day Fund in preparation for what everyone acknowledges is a financial hurricane on the horizon. So could the $180 million surplus lawmakers keep stashed away in leadership accounts.
What to do
“Only voters can end one of the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s favorite forms of incumbent protection — those repugnant ‘walking around money’ grants (WAMs) that members dole out in their districts,” proclaims an editorial in yesterday’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: WAMs’ bam: Another public fleecing .
That’s not quite true. Since taking office, Attorney General Tom Corbett and Gov. Rendell both have had, and still have, the ability to end WAMs on any given day. All they have to do is refuse to approve the state contracts that make WAMs possible.
Meanwhile, both Republican gubernatorial candidate Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato, pledge to end WAMs. So did former Gov. Tom Ridge, under whose administration the only thing that changed was the name when WAMs became “legislative initiative grants.” Driving a stake through the heart of WAMs is easier said than done.
When your lawmakers proudly announce some grant as Election Day approaches, please let us know about it. We can’t find them all, but we’d like to find enough to illustrate once again the distorted priorities of self-interest that motivate our General Assembly.
Please forward this edition of DR News and encourage your friends to sign up for future editions by clicking here .
Please support DR’s work with a tax-deductible contribution.