HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The Pennsylvania Legislature is holding more taxpayer money in reserve than ever before, leading critics to say the legislature is less than transparent regarding the surplus.
In a 16-minute hearing, the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission changed chairmen, from Republican George Dunbar to Democrat Pat Harkins, and voted to accept and approve the general assembly’s balance sheet.
However, it wasn’t until hours later that the commission publicly released the audit.
“This is an astonishing display of no sunshine,” said Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital. “There’s no opportunity for the public to speak or the media to engage.”
The report showed the legislature sitting on a record surplus of more than $261 million taxpayer dollars.
“People say, ‘Why is there a surplus?'” said Rep. Pat Harkins (D), chair of the Legislative Advisory Commission.
Harkins said what every chair before him has said: The legislature needs money in case of a budget standoff with the governor.
“You want to make sure everybody gets paid. You want to make sure all the departments are funded well,” Harkins said.
The “budget standoff” argument is made frequently, and some say it’s overstated in 2023.
“We had a budget impasse under Governor Rendell, all of the state workers got paid. That’s a settled issue,” Epstein said.
But how much money is enough for a surplus?
The last Democratic chair of the commission, Josh Shapiro, said this in 2008:
“There’s no policy on the surplus, and there ought to be one. I think we should have a policy a long time ago to limit the surpluses.”
Does Shapiro still believe that?
Governor Shapiro, who is now in budget negotiations with the legislature, had no comment, but others did.
“I think there are a lot better things to be spending taxpayers’ money on than creating a big surplus for the general assembly,” said Marc Stier of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
“They don’t need $250 million in a slush fund,” Epstein added.
The $261 million is also hard to follow, perhaps intentionally.
Then speaker Bryan Cutler moved $40 million dollars from funds labeled “legislative data processing center.”
Haskins promises a new approach as chair.
“There’s always creative financing, everybody has a way of marketing things or branding things, but we’ve got to bring that to light and make sure that the public understands what that is and what it is used for,” Haskins said.
The audit commission hearing happened an hour before Governor Shapiro’s first budget address.