Little-known agency controls state transportation funding
HARRISBURG - A little-known state agency will control a slice of the pie when it comes to distributing millions of dollars of new revenue for transportation projects.
The Commonwealth Financing Authority is to distribute roughly $40 million starting in fiscal 2014-15 for community transportation projects with that amount increasing to $65 million in fiscal 2017-18 as the revenue pot builds up.
The new $2.3 billion transportation funding package provides that CFA will distribute a portion of revenue going to the newly created "Multimodal Transportation Fund" for local pedestrian safety, land use, connector and transit projects that meet criteria under an existing law.
The CFA is a rarity among state agencies in that each legislative caucus can wield a veto power over which projects get money. The authority is composed of seven members, three appointed by the governor and four appointed by the respective House and Senate caucus leaders.
The kicker is that all four CFA legislative appointees must vote together for an action to win approval, a super majority for the legislative branch. If one of those four doesn't go along, it can blackball that project. In practice, that means applicants make pitches to the four caucus representatives.
This arrangement isn't found in most other states or on most Pennsylvania state boards for that matter. Legislative appointees routinely sit on boards, but they don't enjoy a veto power.
Since its creation nearly a decade ago, CFA has been in on the action each time a major new revenue source has been created by lawmakers. The authority is a compromise between former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and a Republican-controlled General Assembly. Rendell wanted approval for an economic stimulus bond issue. GOP leaders wanted oversight over how the money was spent.
But CFA's scope has since expanded and now it has oversight over hundreds of millions of dollars.
First came the 2004 casino law.
The CFA decides what economic development projects get the annual local share of gambling revenue from Mount Airy Casino Resort and Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.
An innovative use for a portion of the Mohegan Sun revenue came after the widespread flooding in Northeast Pennsylvania in the fall of 2011. The CFA approved creation of a Luzerne County Small Business Fund to provide loans and other assistance to help nearly 200 flood-damaged businesses. The plan took shape with support from Luzerne County lawmakers, business leaders and the Corbett administration.
The CFA has had a hand in distributing money from Rendell-era programs to upgrade water and sewer treatment facilities and promote alternate energy development.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett agreed to a CFA role in distributing a share of impact fee revenue from natural gas drillers.
Just recently, CFA approved millions of dollars for "Marcellus Legacy Fund" projects to support environmental and conservation projects in local communities.
Lawmakers pay close attention to CFA board meetings and are first to announce when the proverbial bacon is coming home.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)