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Harrisburg waste, part VI

Here is the sixth installment of waste in the legislature, prompted by the recent grand jury report.

In Washington they're known as "earmarks;" in Harrisburg they're called "WAMs."

It's an acronym for "walking-around money," special legislative grants to fund individual legislators' pet projects in their districts.Curbing these grants and making the spending more transparent must be a priority.

The process is so secretive that nobody really knows how much money Harrisburg spends annually on WAMs. An Associated Press investigation in 2008 found at least $110 million in these grant requests. Some insiders say the total has been as high as $750 million in past years. Governors and the legislature have been playing with this hidden pool of taxpayer money for at least 20 years.

The size and validity of the grants vary wildly, from $5,000 for a volunteer fire company to $2.6 million for the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., a nonprofit group that House Appropriations Chairman Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) helped to found. One of the all-time masters of WAMs was former state Sen. Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia, who's now serving time in federal prison for misusing public money.

Not all WAMs are wasteful. But the spending is shrouded in secrecy and controlled by legislative leaders who dole out grants like political favors. In the second half of 2008, sparsely populated Greene County received more WAMs per capita than any other county in the state. It's the home of powerful Democratic Rep. Bill DeWeese, now also under indictment.

Cracking down on WAMs should be a part of any serious reform effort in Harrisburg.