Thousands of state workers will be losing their jobs, the state's social service agencies are struggling to deal with delayed and reduced funding, roads and bridges across the commonwealth are crumbling, yet pork barrel spending on politically favored projects, many of dubious value, continues unabated.
For decades now many legislators have engaged in the process of requesting funding for projects within their districts. To be sure some have merit, such as grants to fire companies and money to build playgrounds. Others are egregious, like the millions earmarked for the Specter library and the John Murtha center. But, meritorious or not, the process by which funding is approved is blatantly political and, at times, borders on legalized bribery.
Both parties and all branches of government are to blame. The governor has borrowed and funneled hundreds of millions of dollars under the guise of "economic development" to politically favored businesses. Legislators, using the same Department of Community and Economic Development, divvy up state tax dollars to pay for projects in their districts.
Rather than eliminate the pork, defenders of the spending have chosen to engage in a battle of semantics. In Harrisburg parlance pork is known as "walking around money" or WAMs. Ask most legislators about WAMs and they will claim there are none. They prefer to call them "grants," which sounds much more philanthropic than WAMs. But the bottom line is pork by any other name still smells like bacon — and that is what the legislators are bringing home.
A kerfuffle has developed over the inclusion of $65.5 million in such pork barrel spending in the recently approved state budget. Given the cutbacks in many areas, pending lay-offs, and unaddressed fiscal issues that will explode upon the next governor, this year's legislative spending orgy is particularly reprehensible.
It is actually worse than reprehensible. Not only is pork fiscally irresponsible, it pervades and perverts the entire legislative process. Legislators often defend the spending citing the good uses to which the funding is put, for example helping to pay for a fire truck for the local volunteer fire company. But even if the end use is noble, the process by which the funding is allocated is not.
WAMs, pork, grants — whatever you may choose to call them — are not allocated based on community need or even the merit of the project. They are allocated based solely on political considerations. Leadership of the four legislative caucuses parcels out the goodies. They keep a disproportionate share for themselves so they can go back to their constituents and tout their clout in Harrisburg. Since the funding is not allocated equally among senatorial or legislative districts, that means taxpayer dollars in the districts of less senior members flow into the districts of leaders, regardless of the economic need of any district.
Worse, leadership uses pork as a stick with which to bludgeon members into bending to their will. If average Joe legislator wants pork for his district, he better vote the way leadership wants or his projects won't get funded. And, when leadership elections are held, pork is a virtual pay-off for keeping leaders in power. That prevents fair and free elections for leadership posts from ever happening.
Given Pennsylvania's dire financial situation the time has come to end pork. The $65.5 million in approved pork barrel spending in the current budget should not be spent and should be returned to the general fund as a small step toward addressing next year's anticipated $5 billion budget deficit. As well, the governor's pot of taxpayer treasure to be given out to favored business interests also should not be expended.
Some legislators will argue this means important community projects will not get funded. If these projects indeed should be given money from state taxpayers, then the legislature should set up a fair and impartial system for reviewing the projects that is free from political influence. Perhaps the state's many grant-making foundations could be called upon to design and contribute volunteers to run such a system. After all, they are expert at reviewing grant requests and making the most out of limited dollars.
The ongoing feast on pork in Harrisburg further taints public perception of an institution already viewed by taxpayers as dysfunctional and corrupt. Legislators could take an important step toward cleaning up their act by eliminating pork and ending the tawdry politics that flow from it.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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