HARRISBURG - Tens of millions of tax dollars that support Pennsylvania lawmakers' favored causes are directed by legislative leaders through a secretive process that appears to benefit some leaders' constituents the most, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
Never-before-released records obtained by the AP through a request filed under the new state Right-to-Know law revealed some counties that are home to top legislators were targeted to receive disproportionately more legislative grant money during the last half of 2008.
The records, released by the Governor's Office, show legislators lodged special grant requests totaling more than $110 million from July to December - more than $430,000 on average for each of Pennsylvania's 253 lawmakers.
The money enables lawmakers to take credit for bringing home checks to their hospitals, water and sewer authorities, civic and cultural organizations, clubs, schools, local governments, and police and fire departments.
Top legislators who agreed to speak to AP insisted the grants are distributed fairly.
But the analysis found that tiny Greene County, 56th out of 67 Pennsylvania counties in population and home of last year's House Democratic leader, Bill DeWeese, was slated to receive more than $3 million, or about $82 per person. That made Greene County No. 1 in grant dollars per person and No. 6 in total dollars.
No. 2 in dollars per person was Carbon County - home of House Speaker Keith McCall, who was the Democratic whip last year - with an average of $50 per person in requests. Carbon County, 40th in population, also was expected to receive about $3 million - making it No. 7 in overall dollars.
On the Republican side, House GOP grant requests helped put Jefferson and Delaware Counties - respectively the homes of Minority Leader Sam Smith and Mario Civera, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee - in line for more money than most counties with similar populations.
In the Senate, Democrats requested outsized portions for the home counties of last year's ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Gerald LaValle of Beaver County, and his successor, Jay Costa of Allegheny County. Similar patterns were not as evident in the grants requested by the Senate GOP.
Philadelphia, the state's most populous city and county, has numerous important regional institutions and several influential lawmakers among the 35 who represent it - and it shows. It was slated to get more than one-quarter of the total grant dollars, even though it represents just 12 percent of the state's population.
Pennsylvania's budget does not specify the money that is set aside for legislators' special projects. It also does not link grants to individual legislators, or groups of legislators, who sought the money.
Pennsylvania's legislative grants - known colloquially as WAMs, for "walking-around money" - have existed in one form or another for a couple of decades.
Once the total amount available for the grants in the budget is hammered out behind closed doors, legislative leaders sift through requests from their caucus members and submit selected ones, along with their own, to the Governor's Office. Executive-branch agencies match the requests to applications filed by the intended recipients for more than a dozen programs that are flush with money for the grants.
DeWeese and McCall turned down repeated requests to answer questions about the grants for their districts, while Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Mellow (D., Lackawanna) said his caucus members' requests reflect their priorities, not political influence.
Smith would not address grant requests for his district, but said in a separate interview that any disparity in district-by-district grant requests was likely due to a legislator's ability or willingness to advocate for projects.