HARRISBURG — Could WAMs be back?
Three years ago, Gov. Corbett declared he had rid Harrisburg of the long-decried perk: the so-called walking around money slipped each year into the budget for legislators to fund pet projects in their districts.
But skeptics believe the oft-criticized WAMs — or a thinly veiled equivalent — made a comeback last month in the $2.3 billion transportation funding plan the legislature approved and Corbett signed.
That is because in crafting the bill, lawmakers also made certain they gave themselves say over tens of millions of dollars of that money.
“Yes, this bill has WAMs,” Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny, contended during the floor debate on the bill, adding that he hoped they weren’t inserted to garner more votes for the transportation funding plan, which was hotly debated and considered politically risky because it increases fuel taxes and motor vehicle license fees.
Other legislators — Republican and Democratic — as well as Corbett administration officials adamantly denied the transportation money has similarities to WAMs, which Corbett eliminated in a bid to increase transparency in state spending.
They say the bill to fund roads, bridges, and transit systems was a critical and long-overdue cash infusion for the state’s crumbling infrastructure and will boost Pennsylvania’s economy while creating jobs and encouraging companies to expand or invest in the state.
WAMs were grants, often indiscernible in the state budget, that legislative leaders directed to pet projects — for everything from festivals to playground equipment — in their own or colleagues’ districts.
Good-government groups and even some legislators criticized the WAMs as secretive and lacking accountability. Some took it a step further, contending caucus leaders in Harrisburg doled them out as a way to control legislators in their party and ensure they voted a certain way.
The majority of the funding approved last month will be awarded through the Department of Transportation’s competitive bidding process.
But legislators also added a provision to the bill to direct a portion of the money — $40 million in the first year, and roughly $60 million in the years after that — through the Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA), whose board is controlled by legislative leaders.
The CFA money will be used to fund smaller transportation-related projects in communities, such as improving lighting, sidewalks, pedestrian safety, and streetscapes, according to language in the bill.
“I can’t comprehend why people would criticize it as being akin to what is commonly referred to WAMs,” said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. “The criticism of those had to do with secrecy and opaqueness. And this (the CFA) is a very open process.”
He noted that the CFA, established under Gov. Ed Rendell to administer the state’s economic-stimulus money, had regularly scheduled public meetings and had a website listing all projects it funds.
What is indisputable is the sway legislative leaders have over the CFA’s decisions. The authority’s seven-member board includes appointees from the four legislative caucuses; the remaining seats are held by Corbett administration cabinet members. A supermajority of five board members is needed to approve any action — and four of those votes have to come from the legislative appointees.
The bill also allows for a separate $40 million pot to go to the state’s transportation secretary — now Barry Schoch — who can decide where that money should be spent.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said in an interview he was bothered more by that allocation than by the money directed to the CFA.
“The problem is allowing any one individual the ability to make these decisions,” Metcalfe said. “When you allow a gubernatorial administration to do that, you give them access to tax dollars to use as leverage to get something they want from the legislature. It’s a corrupting influence that you are establishing.”
Administration officials said Schoch had historically had discretion over spending on certain aspects of transportation projects, and that this was no different.
Corbett spokesman Steve Chizmar said such discretionary money would be used mainly to complete projects that may end up needing some extra funding.
“This is a historic piece of legislation that will be felt across every corner of the commonwealth,” Chizmar said. “There are going to be individuals who want to poke holes in this, but the reality is it will benefit all of Pennsylvania.”