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Earmarks? WAMs? By Any Name, Conservative Group Says They Must Go

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) -- A conservative think tank is renewing one of its annual traditions: calling out state lawmakers for stashing money in the budget for municipal projects.

This year, the Commonwealth Foundation tracked down $61 million in these so-called earmarks--up significantly from $35 million last year.

The Pennsylvania Constitution says if lawmakers want to give money to a specific charitable or educational organization that's not under state control, they have to approve it by a two-thirds majority.

It's hard to rally that sort of support for a targeted project. But there's a way around the requirement.

If you read through the fiscal code for this year's budget you'll find, for instance, a $918,000 allocation made to a "community college in a county of the fourth class with a population of at least 175,000, but not more than 190,000."

Language like this is scattered throughout the bill: allocations that are vague enough to pass constitutional muster, but can really only apply to one place.

In the case of that $918,000, the Commonwealth Foundation determined it's probably going to Butler County Community College.

"Each of the recipients of these earmarks--they could be entirely worthy and appropriate," noted Steve Bloom, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation. "But what's lacking is an open, transparent and competitive process."

Bloom is a former GOP representative, and said during his time in the legislature he was routinely frustrated by earmarks. Final fiscal code language, he noted, is typically only given to rank-and-file lawmakers in the late stages of budget negotiations.

"You're presented with a fiscal code that could be hundreds of pages long. You can read the language, but to interpret the language, because of the convoluted way it's written, it makes it very challenging," he said.

Bloom said he was encouraged last year when the Commonwealth Foundation's report turned up just $35 million in earmarks, because it was a significant drop from the average.

At the time, a spokesman for House Republicans said his caucus was trying to scale back the practice.

But this year, Bloom noted, the earmarks were right back to where they'd hovered for years.

"There seemed to be some good progress being made last year that was kind of reversed this year," he said.

Slipping money into the budget for municipal projects in lawmakers' districts isn't a new phenomenon in Harrisburg.

The practice has existed for decades in various forms--for instance, disbursing grants at lawmakers' request from a designated pot of money. The funding, in its many iterations, is most commonly referred to as WAMs: walking around money.

WAMs are notorious for their opacity. Groups like the Commonwealth Foundation argue that earmarks are merely another guise for the same thing.

However, legislative leaders tend to defend earmarks.

A spokeswoman for Senate Republicans maintained that lawmakers "have a right to have priorities in the budget."

"The descriptions are fairly easy to decipher," she added. "We aren't playing hide and seek with this. This is a far, far cry to the days of WAMs where there was nothing written in any bill. There was money booked in the budget with no descriptions whatsoever."

The earmarks make up a relatively small portion of the overall budget, which costs just under $34 billion this year.