Watchdogs raise concerns over Pa. budget ‘earmarks’

 A report from the Commonwealth Foundation sought to identify where all the so-called 'earmarks' in the Senate's budget proposal would go. (AP Photo)

A report from the Commonwealth Foundation sought to identify where all the so-called 'earmarks' in the Senate's budget proposal would go. (AP Photo)

It’s been nearly a month since Pennsylvania’s Senate voted through a revenue plan to fund the state budget — if the House agrees to it.

But Harrisburg watchdogs are still poring over it to figure out where money is going.

The right-leaning Commonwealth Foundation has released a report detailing instances where senators slipped spending into a bill meant to fund the budget.

All told, the chamber’s fiscal code bill includes $65 million that’s split among several dozen groups deemed worthy of the money.

The process is colloquially called “earmarking.”

Commonwealth Foundation Director Nathan Benefield said recipients — that may include hospitals, schools or towns — are hard to determine, because they aren’t listed by name.

“It says like, well this is open to any organization that’s in a third-class county, in a second-class city, with a population of 35,000,” Benefield said. “And it’s only one organization that fits that definition.”

The foundation is on a multiyear quest to make the “earmarks” more transparent. This year, Benefield said, it spent several weeks studying the fiscal code and still wasn’t able to figure out where all the earmarked money was going.

Putting spending into the fiscal code makes it easier to use taxpayer dollars as political collateral, he said.

“Lawmakers who vote the right way or vote the way leadership wants them to are going to get earmarks in their district — and those earmarks are traded, basically, for votes on legislation,” he said.

Lawmakers have defended their freedom to have some discretionary spending. And, said a spokeswoman for the Senate GOP, the process for allocating the money isn’t without oversight measures.

“People have to make applications for them, they have to go through and publicly apply and fulfill all the requirements from the specific departments from which they’re receiving the money,” Jenn Kocher said.

The Commonwealth Foundation wants to see the earmarks itemized in the actual budget spending plan instead of the fiscal code, saying that would better ensure the allocations are fair.

The Senate plan’s earmarks include money for certain state parks, community colleges, and autism services, among other things. 

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