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Free-market group targets ‘slush funds’ buried in state budget plan

By   /   December 11, 2015  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

State lawmakers could sock Pennsylvanians with a $1.2 billion tax increase just in time for the Christmas holiday, but they’re making sure to stuff their stockings as they try to end the five-month-long budget impasse, according to one group’s analysis.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, has identified $85 million in funding increases within the state Senate’s $30.8 billion budget plan that it contends is legislative slush money.

Typically called walking-around money, or WAMS, the funds have been used previously for projects including business grants, holiday lighting projects and even pool operating costs for a country club. The Senate budget would expand WAMs by 189 percent and restore programs that had been shuttered to eliminate the controversial funds, according to the Commonwealth Foundation.

“By claiming this spending is for things like ‘community and business assistance,’ legislators hope taxpayers won’t know what it really is: slush funds legislators use to advance their own agenda at taxpayers’ expense,” said Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Commonwealth Foundation

SLUSH FUNDS: The Commonwealth Foundation identified nine programs that will receive a total of $85 million in increased funding. Amounts are in thousands.

Jennifer Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, said the Commonwealth Foundation has inaccurately described “important” line items in the budget and disputed they are pet projects.

The expenditures, Kocher said, will fund a range of items, including epilepsy support services, breast cancer screening, domestic violence services, community revitalization and the clean-up of abandoned mines, among other projects.

“If we have to adopt a budget with increased revenues in order to get to an agreement that the governor will sign, we want to do so in a way that will put the money back into our communities,” she said.

While the Commonwealth Foundation argues that legislative leaders exercise control over the funds, Kocher said lawmakers have “no discretion” over the money. Instead, parties apply to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, she said.

A DCED spokesman, Daniel Carrigan, did not address questions about the role lawmakers play in the awarding of funds. Instead, he provided only a generic statement.

“In response to your questions, this budget provides a much-needed impact on our ability to build strong, stable communities and to make critical investments in the state’s economy, while beginning to address the deficit and need for increased funding in education,” Carrigan wrote in an email. “To build a 21st century Pennsylvania, we have to redevelop and revitalize our economy and our communities.”

The Commonwealth Foundation identified nine programs included in the Senate budget as part of its analysis of questionable spending. All told, the budget would funnel $130 million to those programs, an $85 million increase.

Pennsylvania First, a job creation program, would receive a $14 million bump. That program once awarded a $200,000 grant to a Kraft plant now slated to close as part of a merger.

Keystone Communities, a community revitalization program, would get an additional $19 million, a 310 percent increase.

Once shuttered, the Community and Business Assistance program would return with $3.6 million. It was previously used to fund a $10,000 holiday lighting project in Aliquippa, a city in Beaver County.

The Senate’s budget emerged this week as a compromise plan between the General Assembly and Wolf. It includes a $350 million increase for public schools, but will also call for a $1.2 billion tax hike.

EARLIER: GOP report finds PA spent $30 billion during impasse

Though lawmakers have not finalized a revenue package, the Senate has considered expanding the sales tax, increasing cigarette taxes and adding new taxes on other tobacco products to fund increased spending.

The budget compromise stands on shaky ground now that state House Republicans, less enthused about raising taxes, passed a budget with a smaller spending increase. Aside from a $200,000 increase for the Keystone Communities program, it’s largely devoid of the funding the Commonwealth Foundation has questioned in the Senate budget.

Brouillette said the state eliminated WAMS for a reason: Past legislative leaders abused them.

“No Pennsylvanian should be forced to prop up a slush fund,” he said. “The only thing we want to see WAMs do is walk their way out of any state budget.”

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Andrew formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.