Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Are WAMs Really Bad?

Recently, as the Pennsylvania budget crisis has droned on, there has been a good deal of attention paid to how we, as a state, spend money. One of the programs which is most frequently attacked and ridiculed in the media and blogosphere is what are called WAMs. There has been a great deal of self-righteous and sanctimonious denigrating of the WAM as a useless vestige of some undefined form of corruption. But is that really true? Well, like most things which are oversimplified on the internet, the reality is a bit more complicated.

First, the term "WAM" doesn't actually exist in law. That epithet is actually a press invented acronym for "Walking Around Money". This deliberately conjures up images of unscrupulous politicians in dark suits, with cash falling out of their pockets, walking around handing out gifts to their buddies, or keeping the money for themselves. None of this is true. Actually, the legal term is "Legislative Initiative Grants" administered under "The Department for Community and Economic Development" (DCED) and there is no cash.

The way DCED Grants work is that a certain amount is passed as part of the budget in open session. Each caucus then gets access to a percentage of the total, and legislative leaders then divide that amount up among their members. Organizations can apply to receive grants. Members can then decide which projects in their district get funded within the constraints of the total amount of money available and the legal parameters of allowable grants. The legislators do not have unbridled discretion. The recipients must be non-profits and non-sectarian. Further, they must provide proof that they spent the money as they represented they would. The names of all grant recipients are public information.

The theory behind making legislators choose the recipients is that they are the ones who actually know their districts. They know what projects are worthy and where the greatest need is. They know which grant applicants are responsible and trustworthy and who are not. Further, we as legislators are politically accountable for the grants we recommend. Placing the decision in the hands of some committee in Harrisburg, composed of people who have never been to my district would probably not lead to a better result.

I can't speak for other legislators and I can't promise there has never been an abuse of the system in some way. But I am very proud of the grants I have brought to my district. They have included defibrillators for police departments and Thermal Imaging Cameras that will save the lives of our First Responders. They have helped support Meals-on-Wheels and Eldernet and our senior centers, which provide valuable services to our senior citizens. They have supported ambulance services and bought uniforms for local little-leagues. They have beautified our side-walks and helped drain our storm-water.

Further, these were not a way to reward political or personal friends. Almost none of my grant recipients were either social friends of political contributors. Further, I have specifically recommended grants requested by organizations headed by people who affirmatively opposed me in my various elections.

The press likes to portray these grants as a re-election tool. Do they help us get re-elected? Marginally I suppose, in the way anytime a legislator does something to benefit their district, it helps them. But most incumbents are in such gerrymandered districts, and incumbency is such a powerful advantage in terms of fund-raising, that grants are a tiny factor. So eliminating them might make some people feel good. But we should acknowledge that many critical, non-profit entities that serve our communities will be hurt or themselves eliminated. If this happens, will we all really be better off?



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