News that Pennsylvania taxpayers are on the hook for $2 million for a center to honor former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter shows why state capital funding should be reined in.
Last week, the Corbett administration said it could find no legal grounds that would allow it to cancel a grant for the Arlen Specter Center for Political Science and International Relations at Philadelphia University.
About $2 million for the center had been promised by former Gov. Ed Rendell during the final months of his administration.
The Specter center grant as well as a $10 million gift for a John P. Murtha Center for Public Policy at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown became campaign issues when they were announced in 2010.
The Mirror and others, including then-gubernatorial candidate Tom Corbett, criticized Rendell for using the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to help pay for projects honoring lawmakers.
After the election, it was revealed that the Rendell administration had sent secret funding commitment letters for 22 RACP projects totaling $102.7 million in 2010 with a requirement that the funding remain confidential until announced by the governor. That allowed Rendell to keep the funding under wraps during the election.
Area recipients for Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds promised by the Rendell administration and subsequently released by the Corbett administration are:
Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair $1 million
Bellefonte waterfront $3 million
St. Francis University Science Center $ 7 million
Mount Aloysius Convocation Center $10 million
East Broad Top Preservation Project $1 million
Clearfield County YMCA III $1.2 million
Richland Township Multi-Use Facility $1 million
Blair County business park $3.5 million
American Eagle expansion $2 million
Altoona Regional Health System $1 million
Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology $3 million
Innovation Park $1.3 million
DuBois Regional Medical Center $300,000
J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital $1 million
Ebensburg downtown revitalization $250,000
John P. Murtha Center $10 million
Source: Governor's Office
That type of secrecy should not be tolerated when dealing with taxpayer funds.
There certainly is a role for the state to aid in capital improvement projects that provide substantial economic benefits.
But the system for awarding these dollars - borrowed on the taxpayers' dime -deserves another look.
Pennsylvania currently can borrow up to $4.05 billion to fund RACP projects, more than double the $1.45 billion limit that was in place when Rendell took office. Rendell convinced lawmakers to increase the borrowing limit several times during his eight years as governor.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, is looking to bring the debt down. He is proposing to limit RACP grants to $125 million a year - about one-fourth of what was typical per year in the Rendell administration - and to bring the overall indebtness of the program down to $1.5 billion during the next two decades, Capitolwire reports.
He also wants to ensure funded projects are "economic drivers" and to require a public hearing in the affected community before a grant application is approved.
At first blush, his legislation makes sense, but it's important to have a thorough discussion so that all concerns are considered, such as the impact of economic development requirements. Those could leave museums, centers and libraries out in the cold for future funding, some say.
It's too early to pass final judgment on Turzai's proposal, but it provides an excellent starting point for a discussion about capital improvement funding that's long overdue.