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

Monday, March 17, 2008
Posted 9:35 PM by

Purposely crying poor in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania lawmakers hard at work.Pennsylvania's Legislature spent $308 million on itself in 2006-07 and stashed another $241.5 million in different piggy banks for future spending.

The lawmakers have been doing the same thing annually for decades, calling their surplus the "continuing appropriation" and arguing the extra cash serves as a buffer in case the governor gets tough during budget talks.

The last time that happened was 20 years ago when Gov. Bob Casey vetoed operating money for Senate Republicans during a drawn-out budget fight, leaving them unable to pay their employees.

Given that, is overbudgeting, overtaxing and stashing the extra cash merely prudent planning?

Hardly, according to state Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-Montgomery County), who chairs the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission.

The commission voted unanimously Monday to approve the 2006-07 audit. Afterward, Shapiro said he believes the Legislature's surplus should be limited to two or three months of its annual appropriation, about $80 million.

Doing so would free up about $160 million annually for other purposes, like providing property tax relief or health coverage for the state's 800,000 uninsured.

House speaker Dennis O'Brien agrees in theory, but not on the dollar amount.

"At a time when money is tight for critical needs throughout state government, it would be a tremendous act of good faith by the Legislature to cut back on the money it's holding for contingencies and make at least $100 million available for programs that are urgently needed," O'Brien said in a press release later in the day.

And unlike everything else in Harrisburg, the desire to cut the surplus isn't partisan.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) said basically the same thing when they announced a plan on Feb. 5, 2007 to slash legislative reserves by at least $75 million. So far, their plan has gone nowhere.

No other state department operates like the Legislature. All offices in the executive and judicial branches either have to spend their appropriations or return the excess to the state's general fund. Some even take pride in saving the state money.

Meanwhile, critics call the Legislature's continuing surplus a slush fund and note legislative leaders tapped it in 2005 to temporarily provide pay raises to lawmakers who decided to collect it before facing re-election despite a provision in the state Constitution barring the practice. After statewide outrage, the pay raise was repealed that November.

The surplus money is still subject to shell games, though.

For example, the audit says the General Assembly surplus shrank from $215 million in 2005-06 to $211 million last year. But that's only because $32 million was moved into a new category for future spending commitments, without which the surplus would have grown last year by about 12 percent.

Still, those type of fiscal shennanigans can yield temporary positive PR. Some early headlines on St. Patrick's Day said the surplus actually decreased.

"I think there's new will to budget more responsibly and be more accountable to the taxpayers," Shapiro said.

This in the same state that makes you wait weeks to find out what your legislator spent money on and which hasn't post the audit on the state Legislature's Web site?

Ernst & Young, which prepared the audit, recommended committee and leadership checking accounts be consolidated under the House Comptroller's Office, similar to how the Senate clerk's office operates.

The audit reportedly found "significant deficiencies" in controls over House checking accounts for House committees and caucus leaders, who do not always document a specific business or legislative purpose for each expense item. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service could classify the payments as income rather than expense reimbursement.

Yet another reason to do away with the very idea of caucuses. That's where the actual haggling over bills takes place in Pennsylvania because the Legislature granted itself an exemption to the state's Open Meetings or Sunshine Law.

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