Tucked into Pa. bill, funding that critics call pork

Posted: July 28, 2014

HARRISBURG - Hospitals from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. A performing arts center in Center City. An ambulance association in Montgomery County.

They are among the several dozen projects worth tens of millions of dollars that the legislature has designated for special funding this year. The money was tucked into a relatively obscure budget bill known as the fiscal code, and written in opaque language replete with legalese.

Some call it legislative pork; others, just another form of Harrisburg's infamous so-called WAMs (walking around money) - special funds for pet projects chosen by legislative leaders.

And though such projects have been tucked into the fiscal code for several years, they are getting special attention now because Gov. Corbett decided to veto some of them when he signed a $29 billion budget earlier this month. And now the legislature is considering suing him over it.

No sooner had he signed the budget than the Republican governor's campaign issued robocalls blasting the GOP-controlled legislature for sending him a budget "loaded with perks and earmarks," while failing to address an issue he considers critical to the state's future: reining in the rapidly rising cost of public employee pensions.

"I came here to protect your hard-earned money, not to make friends," Corbett says on the call. "Cutting those excesses . . . has made some legislators angry."

Legislative leaders have defended the projects as worthy, and dispute that they even remotely resemble WAMs, which Corbett has said he eliminated after taking office in 2011.

To be sure, WAMs were shrouded in secrecy and were used to fund everything from new roofs to new playgrounds in legislators' districts. It was difficult to get a list of which projects were funded, which legislator sponsored them, or even how the projects stacked up against others that didn't receive money.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said in an interview last week that the earmarks were like any other line item in the budget: They are negotiated with the administration during budget talks - albeit, behind closed doors - and advanced through the normal legislative process.

"It is nothing like the WAMs process that existed before," he said.

Still, the party that controls the chambers - in this case, Republicans - is the one with the ultimate say over what makes it into the bill. And, with some exceptions, tracking which legislator is behind which project is not a readily transparent process.

In fact, when the legislature was voting on the fiscal code in early July, leaders were unable to provide a list of, or even itemize, which projects were in line for money. They did so only late last week.

And looking at the language in the fiscal code rarely helps.

Consider this example: "From funds appropriated for local municipal emergency relief, $1,000,000 shall be appropriated to a multi-county provider of emergency services that serves a portion of a county of the second class A and portion of a county of the third class."

Turns out, that means $1 million for the Upper Perkiomen Valley Ambulance Association, which provides emergency transport services to towns in Montgomery and Lehigh Counties.

Also slated to get money this year: the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which will receive $300,000 to "plan and market a biennial arts and cultural activity"; $100,000 to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for research on childhood cystic fibrosis; $200,000 for a program in Delaware County called HeroesPath, which links veterans with workforce training and employment; and $2 million for Delaware County's nursing facility, the Fair Acres Geriatric Center.

An additional $240,000 will go to the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and $200,000 to CATCH Inc. in Philadelphia, which provides mental health and developmental disabilities services.

Several hospitals are also receiving funding, including Mercy-Fitzgerald Hospital in Delaware County ($1.5 million), Mercy Suburban Hospital in Montgomery County ($500,000), and Einstein Medical Center ($500,000).

Outside Philadelphia and its suburbs, organizations and projects that will receive funding include the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ($250,000), the Special Olympics Pennsylvania ($300,000), and $1.2 million for a new community college in northwestern Pennsylvania.

When he took out his veto pen, Corbett struck $7.2 million from the fiscal code - all from legislative earmarks. The majority, $5 million, was for legislative parking in Harrisburg, which the administration believed should be paid out of the legislature's $153 million surplus.

The governor also vetoed $500,000 for Washington Crossing Historical Park in Bucks County and about $600,000 in sewage facility planning grants, among other projects.

Charles Zogby, Corbett's budget secretary, said last week that the governor made his veto choices based on what he believed were the legislature's overly optimistic revenue projections.

"I don't think anybody questions the worthiness of some of the entities that were funded," Zogby said. "It was more a concern about the state of our revenues, and what happens if revenues come up short."

Eric Epstein, cofounder of the activist group Rock the Capital, said that what is troublesome are not the projects themselves - many, he said, are defensible. It's the process by which they are decided - behind closed doors, with little if any public input.

"It's hard to take issue with many of the projects," he said. "The problem is that you have to decode what and where the money is going to. These disbursements are special carve-outs without fingerprints."


717-787-5934 @AngelasInk

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