"What's black and white and read all over?"

Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Posted 10:56 PM by

Want to know what your Pa. legislator spends money on?

Be prepared to make at least two requests in writing, wait a few weeks in between for approval, shell out 50 cents per page for copying and be willing to sit in a closet for hours on end.

Pennsylvanians who try to follow the money their lawmakers spend face have to overcome purposeful obstacles blocking the trail.I have long decried the fact that Pennsylvania's Legislature is the only governmental body in the state exempt from the Sunshine or Open Meetings law.

That means the state lawmakers, who wrote that law, can debate the public's business behind closed doors in party-based caucuses.

But did you also know that they're pretty much exempt from the state's Open Records law too, by making their public records request process purposely prohibitive in order to deter the prying public?

This from a government body that spends $500 million annually on itself.

My buddy, Bob Bauder of the Beaver County Times, learned that firsthand recently when he tried to look up the office expenses of several lawmakers from his area.

Bob found that a citizen would pay hundreds of dollars and spend months, literally in a closet, trying to get expense reports for all of the state's 203 House members.

To gain access to the records, Bauder found that citizens must write letters requesting the reports. Legislators are then notified of the request and once it's approved, citizens must make an appointment in the Capital to see the information - a process that can take weeks.

Before they're given any documents, though, citizens have to sign an "Expenditure Review Affidavit," listing their name, "swearing and avowing" the name of their employer and listing the records they are about to review.

This is my favorite part: "Then they must sit in the 4-by-6-foot closet along with a refrigerator, cases of pop, salt and pepper shakers, food tins and umbrellas while looking over the paperwork."

Bob also found:

  • The reports have no order to them and can run 40 pages long. Copying costs 50-cents per page.

  • Expenses are listed only generically as "office supplies" or "meals."

  • For further detail, citizens must request receipts, which means another round of requests that could take weeks.

The process is time-consuming and prohibitive in order to "keep the taxpayers deaf, dumb and blind," Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising Pa., told Bauder. "The purpose is so they can't be criticized for having wasted taxpayer money."

To change that, Potts' group and a coalition of others have joined together and come up with a Roadmap to Reform.

They want to compel the lawmakers to comply fully with the Open Records law to the same degree and in the same detail as all other agencies in the state. In addition, they want the law rewritten to provide a monthly, online accounting for each legislator detailing the cost of all salary, benefits and expenses paid during the previous month.

The groups would also prohibit all forms of unvouchered expenses, permit legislators per diem costs but only for expenses with detailed vouchers that are open to public inspection via the Internet, and want all votes by lawmakers - including committee votes, procedural votes and votes on amendments and final passage - posted online within 24 hours with links to the language actually voted upon and the final outcome of the vote.

So far, only one bill, which was introduced by state Senator Vince Fumo comes even close to meeting any of the coalition's requests.

Senate Bill 102 would mandate that each vote taken in the House or Senate be posted on the Internet site of that particular chamber within 24 hours of the vote. Committee votes would have to be posted within 48 hours. The bill would also require the complete journal of each legislative session day to be posted on the Internet within 30 calendar days. It would further mandate that a Legislative Data Processing Committee maintain a publicly accessible database of the official version of all statutory laws of the Commonwealth. Currently, only private companies have maintained such databases.

Fumo, D-Philadelphia, introduced the bill on April 19, nearly a month after a similar bill was proposed in New Jersey's Legislature.

State Senator Robert J. Martin introduced his bill, S1662, on March 20 to require New Jersey's Office of Legislative Services to "make complete voting records of legislators available to the public in electronic form."

It has since been followed up by two nearly identical measures, A3004 and A3252.

The Senate unanimously approved Martin's proposal and based on the trio of bills, the Assembly State Government Committee voted last Thursday to authorize an interactive online database through which users can see how lawmakers voted on a specific bill on the Senate or Assembly floor or in committees.


New Jersey has an eye on moving ahead of neighboring states in terms of openness and responsibility, with bills that would mandate all state reports be posted online and require lawmakers to take ethics training. To read more about it, click here.
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