Tuesday, July 31, 2007

It's your money

From today's edition of The Mercury, a good editorial on how Gov. Rendell and legislative leaders are holding $360 million of your tax dollars hostage:

Pennsylvania Legislature holds on to luxury of walking around money

With pollution cleanup left unfunded in Pennsylvania, legislators have some explaining to do about the destination of some $360 million in discretionary funds.

But they're not talking.

The Associated Press reported Sunday that the amount legislators set aside in the recently approved budget for programs of their choosing is "said to be $360 million," but the programs and amounts are not being made public.

Despite the much-publicized reforms allegedly taking shape in Harrisburg, the Legislature remains exempt from Pennsylvania's open-records law.

The exemption could disappear if pending proposals to expand the law to include the Legislature are approved. But even if that happens, lawmakers' spending choices can be shielded by another existing exemption for notes and other unofficial documents that lead up to a decision.

Some of the money, if not all of it, goes into grant programs that are known informally as "walking around money" — a nickname that is a throwback to the days when legislators exclusively controlled the money. The WAMs subsidize a wide range of community services and projects, from St. Patrick's Day parades to sewer pipelines — money for which a legislator can claim credit.

The money is also hidden in the budget with generic names for grants like "community revitalization and assistance" and "urban development."

The specifics of the grants are not made clear, and critics say legislative leaders and executive branch officials use them to help re-election chances of legislators by writing checks for popular causes just before Election Day.

Rendell administration officials and legislators insist that the grants are not traded for votes, and approval is based on the merits of a project.

But the number of times that such projects get money in the last days of October and early November beg otherwise.

Not only is the lack of information about WAMs troublesome, but the fact that such a large chunk is protected even when other important programs are going unfunded is even more disturbing.

In response to numerous requests by The Associated Press, legislators and legislative staff members have offered various explanations for not revealing the programs the Legislature funded, WAMs or otherwise. Others would not discuss the matter at all, and still others did not return telephone calls, according to the AP account.

Perhaps citizens would agree that the projects funded by WAMS represent money well spent. But, without knowing where it goes, no one can tell.

Pennsylvania is not in such a sound fiscal state that $360 million doesn‘t matter.

Copyright 2007, The Mercury

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