Baer: Your legislature's big, fat slush fund

Campaign 2016 Clinton DePasquale
“It’s unbelievable,” state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale says. “Given the General Assembly’s track record, there should be a lot more information than that.”

I bet it won’t surprise you to know that even as your legislature gets set to trim state government costs in the face of a $3 billion budget deficit, it continues harboring its own big, fat slush fund.

A laughable (or cry-worthy) legislative “audit” released Monday shows $118 million sitting in legislative reserve funds as of the end of fiscal 2016.

That’s roughly a third of the legislature’s annual budget. It’s also $18 million more than the previous year’s reserves. And the legislature’s on track to get a further $313 million-plus in the coming year.

For comparative purposes, the state’s entire $32 billion general fund has a “rainy day” reserve totaling $245,000.

Think something’s askew here? Read on.

There’s no cap on what the legislature can stash away. It audits itself. It hires an accounting firm (for which you pay $172,500). Then a Legislative Audit Advisory Commission accepts and releases findings.

The commission's chairman, Rep. Mark Keller (R., Perry), said in a statement that the commission’s goal is to make audit documents “easy to understand and fully accessible” and encouraged the public to review them at legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/cteeInfo/laac.cfm.

If you do, don’t expect specificity.

You’ll see, for example, expenditures of $8.2 million for “services," a combined $7 million for “transportation” and “travel,” $2.9 million for “miscellaneous/other.”

Not exactly a model of transparency.

“It’s unbelievable,” state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale tells me. “Given the General Assembly’s track record, there should be a lot more information than that.”

DePasquale, a former state House member from York County, would love to do a real audit: “I’d begin an audit at once.”

But he can’t. “It would take a statute,” he says. There’s always a bill to allow such an audit, he says, "but I’ve never even seen the issue get a hearing.”

Of course not. Why would the legislature account for your money?

Reserves are nothing new. Legislative leaders in both parties argue a need to preserve separation of powers, especially in the event a governor strips funding in a budget battle.

I’d note there was no budget for nine months in 2015-16, yet lawmakers all got paid with borrowed money and the big, fat slush fund returned.

There’s more.

Some legislative commissions and committees have reserves that nearly total or actually exceed their annual budgets.

The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee is budgeted at $1.8 million. Its reserves are $1.3 million. Its function is to “conduct studies and make recommendations aimed at eliminating unnecessary expenditures.”

One could argue it is an unnecessary expenditure. Both House and Senate already have standing, staffed, and funded finance committees and appropriations committees.

The Joint State Government Commission is budgeted at $1.5 million. Its reserves are $920,934. It “provides the Legislature with a readily available mechanism for conducting interdisciplinary studies.”

But both House and Senate have standing, staffed and funded state government committees. So how about they do their own interdisciplinary studies?

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is budgeted at $756,000. Its reserves exceed $1 million. Hey, yet another reason to end gerrymandering.

I really wanted to talk with Rep. Keller, but he really didn’t want to talk with me. He sent House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin, who gamely pushed the argument about separation of powers, though when I asked why some legislative entities had reserves approaching or topping their budgets, Miskin said: “That’s a very good question. That might get addressed in the coming-up budget.”

He also noted reserves are less than in most past years. In other words, current hiding and hoarding of your money isn’t as horrible as it could be.

All this is but another example of an institution with no concern about its image, an institution that puts self-service above public service.

It’s too large, too lax, too entrenched. And its chronic abuse of tax dollars taints every one of its members.