"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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Sunday, February 17, 2008
Posted 10:10 PM by

Report: Pa. slots parlor owners, wannabes spent $1.7M lobbying in '07

Now even the total amount of money gambling interests spent to lobby Pennsylvania lawmakers is being kept from public view.Citizens Voice Projects Editor Dave Janoski pulled off a statewide scoop Sunday, revealing in his Wilkes-Barre newspaper that lobbyists for holders and seekers of casino licenses spent nearly $1.7 million last year to influence state lawmakers.

It's a scoop because no one but the lobbyists and the legislators themselves know right now how much money was spent on their behalf. Public release of the total amount spent lobbying by gambling and other interests in the state appears to be purposely obfuscated behind bureaucratic process.

No offense to Janoski, who I worked with for years, but his total does not account for all the nameless middlemen and others who stand to make a killing off gambling here and are lobbying for their chance.

Although the House of Representatives passed a lobbyist disclosure bill on Oct. 24, 2006, and Gov. Ed Rendell signed it into law on Nov. 1 of that year, the total amount of money being spent by gambling lobbyists is still a closely held secret.

There is a lobbying expenditure database posted online. However, you have to know the name of the lobbyist or his/her client in order to get any detailed information out of it. Even if you went through it from "A" to "Z", there's no way to know for sure if you missed someone. Then you have to add all those numbers up.

This is what passes for public disclosure here in Slotsylvania. It's like trying to find a specific tree from within a tall, thick forest.

Previously, lobbying disclosure for the state Senate broke down the total amount of money given by the interests of the lobbyists' clients. While the online database is a step in the right direction, it's nearly meaningless without knowing the total amount spent by similar interests for similar goals.

A notice on the Web site of the state Department of State's Division of Campaign Finance and Lobbying Disclosure says the Lobbying Disclosure Regulations Committee has met for more than a year now - ostensibly to discuss how best to gather and release the information - but didn't publish its proposed regulations until the Jan. 19, 2008, issue of the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

The new regs are now in a 30-day public comment period. Any person with questions or comments may e-mail Louis Lawrence Boyle, deputy chief counsel for the Department of State, at , to state Attorney General Tom Corbett, the regulation committee's chairman, at , or to .

You may want to use those e-mail addresses after you finish reading this.

The rules are largely legalese but basically focus on the filing requirements the lobbyists must meet, not how the information is supposed to be released or in what form.

So why then are total breakdowns by category of lobbyist still being withheld from the public?

The regulations committee adopted interim guidelines on May 30 and the lobbyists have been filing reports for more than a year now.

Although the 2004 law legalizing slot machine gambling banned direct campaign contributions from anyone with gambling interests, it did not bar them from hiring lobbyists who can wine and dine lawmakers and make indirect political donations on their client's behalf.

In 2007, holders and seekers of casino licenses paid lobbyists $1.68 million to represent their interests in the capital, Janoski reports, without citing a specific source. However, he does quote extensively from Craig Christopher, counsel to federally indicted state Sen. Vincent Fumo (D-Philadelphia).

Christopher, who had a hand in drafting the state slots law, said no other state with gambling has barred lobbying from companies with an interest in it.

Then again, probably no other state gave a slots parlor license to a guy like Louis DeNaples. The Dunmore billionaire and federal felon was indicted for lying about his alleged mob ties a little more than three months after opening his Mount Airy casino. He has denied any wrong-doing.

While DeNaples faced a Dauphin County grand jury for months last year, his company, Mount Airy #1 L.L.C, spent $67,375 lobbying lawmakers for "casino gambling" through the Philadelphia firm of S.R. Wojdak & Associates LP.

That was on top of at least $679,375 and possibly more than $1 million in political contributions DeNaples gave to Rendell, Corbett, key lawmakers, judges and party groups to get slot machine gambling legalized and to obtain a slots parlor license between 2000 and 2004.

While I don't doubt Janoski's reporting, I think he has only seen the tip of the iceberg.

In 2006, the last year for which total corporate and lobbying expenses are currently available, gambling interests spent $3.1 million just to lobby the state's 50 senators. That was down from the $4.6 million spent in 2005 and the $4.7 million spent in 2004.

No figures are available for the state House, which has 203 members.

Despite the lack of lobbying disclosure the lobbying disclosure law has wrought, Majority Floor Leader H. William DeWeese introduced House Bill 2121 last summmer which would legalize table games at the slots parlors - in effect, turning them into full-fledged casinos.

State Sen. Sean Logan (D-Allegheny County) proposed in Senate Bill 658 to shut off the spigot of millions of dollars being spent annually by gambling interests to influence state lawmakers. But his bill hasn't made it out of committee since it was introduced nearly a year ago.

Now, here's the really scarey part.

"Lobbyists employed by gaming companies say tax laws, liquor laws and even Pennsylvania's new Open Records law, which expands public access to government documents, are of interest to the industry," Janoski wrote.

"There is an immense level of detail and private information provided in the licensing process. Our interest in (the Open Records law) was protecting that type of personal information," said Eric Schippers, vice president for government and public affairs for Penn National Gaming Inc.

Penn National opened the Hollywood Casino at its horse track in Dauphin County last week. It spent $238,458 on lobbyists in 2007, Janoski wrote.

To say I hate the lobbying disclosure law with the heat of a thousand suns, is to put it mildly. It was rammed through using some of the same tricks employed to pass the 2004 slots law and the now-repealed 2005 legislative pay raise.

Even when the new regulations are finally enacted, they won't require lobbyists to say specifically which lawmakers were lobbied and how much was spent on each. The lobbyists merely have to state the total amount of money spent on behalf of their client each quarter and briefly why - and even then only if it was more than $2,500.

To delay publicly releasing total lobbying expenditures by category until the new regulations for the law are complete - or even worse, not at all - is just adding further insult to injury to an already bruised, battered and bloodied body politic.

It's one of the reasons why I now call this state Slotsylvania, for we have the best government money can buy in secret.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008
Posted 7:17 PM by

Pa. picks at its navel lint

Why can't Ed Rendell have it both ways by issuing a propaganda report at taxpayer expense that says he's a reformer?First, Pennsylvania lame duck Gov. Ed Rendell - five years into his reign and a full year into his second term - decides Friday to issues his first annual review of his administration, by his administration.

That's followed hours later by an Associated Press article that says reform-minded freshmen lawmakers have accomplished little reform during their first year in office.

Somebody pinch me. I think I'm still having the same nightmare over and over.

"Pennsylvania taxpayers have a right to know how the commonwealth spends their hard-earned tax dollars," Governor Rendell said in a press release. "This report provides those crucial answers. It shows we are making progress, but we have more work to do."

A lot more than just issuing pure propaganda, Ed. I sent you a list in April 2006 and so far you haven't addressed any item on it.

Meanwhile, the 170-page "Gov.'s Report on State Performance," which is available online as a PDF file, emphasizes the administration's achievements during Rendell's five years as governor. (What, you expected an honest assessment of shortcomings from Fast Eddie?)

It provides basic information about the major departments of state government and programs they administer, as well as an assortment of charts, graphs and tables to illustrate trends and tax dollars spent.

Reporters at a press conference Friday took exception to the report's contention that the number of jobs "created, retained or pledged" as a result of state economic development programs grew from about 187,000 in 2004-05 to more than 282,000 in 2006-07.

However, an Associated Press story in October that focused on Rendell's first two years in office showed more than half of 56 businesses that accepted $44 million in taxpayer money failed to hire as many workers as they promised in 2003-04.

By the way, printing 1,000 to 1,500 copies of the governor's new report is expected to cost taxpayers an additional $20,000, Michael Masch, the governor's top budget adviser, said he could not calculate the total cost of producing the report because that work was done largely by state employees in each of the 25 state departments and agencies it covers, and those costs were not itemized.

Wonderful. That alone says plenty about the Rendell administration. Drop everything, the big (and I stress big) boss needs good PR.

Another group in need of better PR - if they haven't hired a new set of flacks secretly already - is the Legislature, especially the politicians voters sent down to Harrisburg to reform it.

The freshman class of 2007 had high hopes, AP reporter Mark Scolforo writes. But one year into their first session, their record is at most incomplete, with movement on many key bills and reform issues stalled in what looks an awful lot like partisan gridlock.

Sophomore state Sen. Mike Folmer needs to do more than just shovel if he has any hope of reforming Harrisburg."It's sort of like a huge snowstorm," sophomore state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, told the news service. "You get 50 inches dumped on your driveway and all you have is a shovel and you think, 'How am I going to clean this up?' You do it one shovelful at a time."

Here's a hint, Mike.

If what you're shoveling is brown and smelly, that's not snow. It's bullshit.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Posted 1:41 PM by

If you can't beat them...

Will taxpayer advocate Gene Stilp accept a per diem if he gets elected to the state House? I think not.Become one of them?

Former Pennsylvania lieutenant governor candidate and anti-legislative pay raise activist Gene Stilp has found another way to get under the skin of state lawmakers.

He wants to join them.

Stilp told the Harrisburg Patriot-News he's collecting signatures with an eye towards the Democratic nomination for the 104th state House district seat. He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2006 and twice argued cases before the state Supreme Court, arguing each time that the Legislature was out of control.

Running for the state House "is another platform to produce reform," Stilp told the newspaper.

Lord knows, our legislators can't seem to do it on their own.

Case in point, the long-delayed "reform" of the state's Open Records Law.

Public access to county coroner's autopsy reports and arbitration documents for public school teachers involved in labor disputes are among the issues that still need to be resolved, said Deborah Musselman, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association.

Meanwhile, I'm willing to bet the update to the bill won't do anything to change the opaque nature of how our legislators spend our tax money.

As I wrote in 2006, Bob Bauder of the Beaver County Times wanted to know what his area lawmakers are spending and had 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.

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