Fiscal code bill provides $29.3 million in 'earmarks'
HARRISBURG - Special earmarks are on the rise in the new state budget as lawmakers take care of local projects.
The fiscal code bill awaiting Gov. Tom Corbett's signature provides $29.3 million in earmarks, a reincarnation of the old controversial "walking around money," for several dozen items, including $150,000 for the RiverQuest science education program in Pittsburgh, $450,000 to reimburse costs tied to the Battle of Gettysburg's 150th anniversary and $50,000 for a job skills partnership in Scranton.
The latter is Skills in Scranton, a partnership between the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce and area educators and workforce programs to improve job skills in specific areas for prospective workers.
Workforce Wayne receives $143,000 in an earmark to continue efforts regarding workforce development in Wayne and Pike counties, said the office of Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Township, Luzerne County. Workforce Wayne recently achieved status as a community education council and the sum recognizes that achievement. But Northeast Pennsylvania gets relatively few earmarks in the fiscal 2013-14 budget.
The appearance of earmarks follows statements by Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers that the practice known as WAMs, slang for "walking around money," would be a thing of the past.
Starting in the 1980s, WAMs were doled out to lawmakers by legislative leaders who tapped appropriated money under the heading "community revitalization" or something similar.
These earmarks are something different and described separately in legal language in the fiscal code bill.
"It's to more publicly describe where some of the programs are being funded," Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh, said Tuesday.
He said the earmarks are a product of the budget negotiations.
The earmarks bear close public scrutiny to make sure they aren't distributed as political favors to allies, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania.
The earmark language reflects effort by lawmakers to meet a state constitutional prohibition against special legislation targeting one individual, program, local government or business.
Therefore, bill writers will routinely create a class for which a provision can apply even if only one entity can actually qualify. This can be seen by the phrase "$50,000 for an education partnership located in Lackawanna County that previously received funding from the department for a postsecondary career training grant and is currently providing community education services which support business education," translated as Skills in Scranton.
If lawmakers want to provide special earmarks, they should vote on them as "non-preferred" bills that require supermajorities for passage, said Kauffman.
"Those are the kinds of safeguards built on our Constitution," he added.
The $28.3 billion state budget for fiscal 2013-14 was enacted June 30 just ahead of a deadline, but lawmakers, legislative aides and advocacy groups are still analyzing the details.
Other earmarks included: $1 million for the Gertrude Barber School in Erie, $14,000 for a school math lab in Jeanette, $50,000 for state programs to identify children needing eye exams and coordinate donated dental services, $700,000 for violence prevention programs run by Big Brother and Big Sister programs in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, $300,000 to create an agricultural resource center at Pennsylvania State University, $500,000 to restore a historic property for affordable housing in Franklin County, $150,000 to treat depression among older residents in Allegheny County and $150,000 to fund independent research in natural gas drilling, according to budget documents and legislative staffers.
The fiscal code bill won final approval in the House Monday, a two-week delay due to the need of the House and Senate to agree on a single bill version.