Capitol mystery: how much does the General Assembly have in its kitty?

Updated with response from Senate Democrats

Inquiring minds want to know: Just how much dough does the legislature have squirreled away? 

Legislative accounts - which have topped $200 million in recent years - are a perennial point of controversy every budget season, so government reform activists and others in the Capitol have been anxiously awaiting a release of the annual audit - for 2010-2011.

It was due in December. 

Today,  a scheduled meeting of the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission was canceled by the chairman, Rep. Gordon Denlinger (R., Lancaster), without explanation. 

Denlinger office referred calls to House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin, who blamed Senate Democrats for not appointing a person to serve on the eight-member commission and for not making their other member, Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) available.


Senate Democratic spokesman Hugh Baird called the criticism "unfounded." He said caucus leader Sen. Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) will appoint someone in the next few weeks (of course, Costa did have nine months to do so) and added that Sen. Hughes has been available for meetings including today by phone.

Tim Potts founder of the reform group Democracy Rising, said he couldn't believe the group could get a quorum of sitting members, when four are in the building.

In addition to Hughes, other members include Rep. Florindo Fabrizio (D., Erie), Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh), Roger Nick, House GOP appointee and former House clerk, James Staider, House Democratic appointee, Mark Freemer, Senate GOP appointee.

In Dec. 2010 the commission reported a surplus of $189 million, down from $201 million the prior year.

 Potts says it is wrong for the legislature to sit on taxpayer money, period. 

He said the sizeable account balance could help offset massive proposed cuts in education and services for the handicapped, he thinks the leaders are stalling the release of the information until after the primary election.

Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital, said the size of the kitty is an embarassment. "It's unconscionable they are withholding that information," he said. 

Miskin said the legislature has worked to reduce its reserves over the past five years, but defended its sizeable account balance as necessary in the event of a government shutdown or budget impasse, the latter of which happened every year under Gov. Rendell.

Miskin said the legislature used the money to continue to operate during the 101-day impasse of 2009.

Potts doesn't buy that excuse.

"If there's a budget impasse, the executive branch doesn't have any money and the judicial branch doesn't have any money to operate," said Pott. "It's the legislature's fault there's an impasse and having the money puts them in superior bargaining position. That's not equity, that's inequity. If there is pain they ought to it feel it too."





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