State budget restores 'walking around money' for legislators

Members of the Pennsylvania House work in chambers on passing on the state budget Wednesday afternoon. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)

We're still poring over the state budget for details, but there is one thing that is becoming increasingly clear. More than anything, this is a budget designed to protect incumbent lawmakers who will be facing reelection this year.

There are a lot of examples of this trend, like the unwillingness of elected officials to even consider a broad-based tax increase. But perhaps there is no better illustration than the sudden increase in funding for the Department of Community and Economic Development, or DCED.

This is the department that administers a lot of economic subsidies, including individual grants awarded by lawmakers known as “Walking Around Money” or WAMs. These grants have long been criticized by reformers, who say that the money is basically handed out like candy by politicians to get votes. Last year, legislative leaders proudly claimed the state budget was “WAM free” because the line item for these grants had been eliminated.

That's not the case in this year's budget. The spending agreement passed on Wednesday includes a 23 percent increase in the DCED budget, about $62 million. Shockingly, this money is primary going to reconstitute the grants that were cut last year.

Why the change? Well, the cynical side of us (and, really, is there any other side?) thinks it just might be connected to the upcoming election. The entire Pa. State House and half the Pa. Senate will be up for reelection this year. And while funding for libraries and job training might be cut, individual lawmakers are still going to have funding for their pet projects. Glad someone will be happy.

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