WAMs get slammed
Pennsylvania lawmakers, some of whom are now serving prison rather than electoral terms, long have used public resources to build and maintain their local political empires. From publicly funded automobiles to tool around their districts, to free mailing and publicly funded production of ill-disguised advertising, opportunities abound to spread the message and nurture the base.
One of the primary devices that leaders of the party caucuses used for decades was the legislative initiative grant, better known as "walking around money" - public money that lawmakers bestowed upon favored interests back home.
Legislators appropriated money that caucus leaders then used to maintain discipline in the ranks. Toe the party line, get a check to hand out for a project in the district.
Much of the money went to good causes and projects. But the distribution was based largely on political clout rather than demonstrated need, and there was little accountability for the funding decisions.
WAMs never really went away. They have traveled incognito under different names, at one point under control of the administration rather than the Legislature.
Now, they're back in the Legislature's hands as nearly $30 million in legislative earmarks, each of which is described, elliptically rather than directly, in the fiscal code bill that the House passed earlier this week.
Because the state constitution precludes special legislation targeting one individual or entity, lawmakers now create a special "class" for distribution of the money, even though that class often consists of a single entity.
History indicates that the process requires greater scrutiny than the new system offers, including specific votes on each appropriation.