The skyrocketing cost of government was a major factor in the GOP’s sweeping victories in congressional elections earlier this month. Much attention was focused on earmarks, the practice of legislators inserting favored projects into the budget without going through the normal appropriations process.
In reaction to the public outcry against earmarks, the U.S. Senate Republican Conference voted to ban the procedure. The vote is viewed as a victory for TEA party fiscal conservatism as well as a personal victory for Senator Jim DeMint who lead the anti-earmark charge and for the incoming class of conservatives, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, who spoke out against earmarks.
National Republicans have heard the voters on pork barrel spending, but will their counterparts at the state level in Penn’s Woods follow in their footsteps? Incoming Governor Tom Corbett campaigned against Walking Around Money or WAMS, which are the state-level version of earmarks. Candidate Corbett attacked WAMS as having "little to no accountability and oversight" and said spending on them has "spiraled out of control."
Governor Corbett will take office with his party in control of both houses of the General Assembly, and they hold historically large majorities. With opposition to WAMS a core part of many legislators’ campaigns the GOP has no excuse when it comes to banning the practice.
Plus, the fact that WAMS still exist is a flagrant violation of the state constitution. A 1995 state Supreme Court ruling verified that the process is unconstitutional. But, defiant legislators simply renamed WAMS "legislative initiative grants" and continued the practice under the new moniker. That, however, doesn’t make them any more constitutional. Tim Potts, founder and president of Democracy Rising PA explains: "They’re unconstitutional because once the legislature appropriates money to an executive agency the legislature may not directly or indirectly determine what happens to those funds. That of course is the WAM process."
The process and even the amount of money spent by state lawmakers on WAMS is cloaked in secrecy. Estimates of how much is spent on WAMS range from $65.5 million reported by the Pennsylvania Independent web site, to the over $100 million per year claimed by State Representative Curt Schroder, an earmark opponent.
There is little bipartisan cooperation in Harrisburg, but feasting on pork has united Republicans and Democrats. According to the Associated Press, in recent years Senate Democrats have submitted $59 million in WAM requests and House Democrats $55 million. During the same time frame Senate Republicans asked for $50 million in pork barrel spending while House Republicans requested $45 million in funding.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that when it comes to allocating WAMS not all house and senate districts are created equal. Legislative leaders feast on bacon, while backbenchers settle for table scraps. The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported that the district represented by former House Speaker Bill DeWeese was number one in receiving WAM grants at $3 million per year for an average of $82.00 per person. The district of current speaker Keith McCall came in second at $50.00 per capita.
Not only are WAMS a perversion of the spending process, they also pollute the legislative process. Leaders use WAM grants to essentially blackmail members into voting the way they want on key legislation. Lawmakers who toe the leadership line are rewarded with WAM grants for their districts, while those who are independent – who represent their constituents rather than leadership – often fail to get their requests approved.
The degree to which WAMs are a sacred cow was evident in this year’s budget process. With the state facing a massive budget deficit the Department of Community and Economic Development, which administers Legislative Initiative Grants, was given a 23% budget increase for an additional $52 million in spending.
For both symbolic and substantive reasons the incoming Republican majority must follow Governor-elect Corbett’s lead, comply with the state constitution and finally put an end to WAMS. It is a crucial first step in the long road toward restoring integrity to and public confidence in Pennsylvania’s badly tarnished legislature.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected])
Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.