The following editorial appeared in Tuesday’s Lancaster New Era:
Whether the General Assembly should have legislative accounts and, if so, how large they should be are matters of debate.
Routinely making public the amount of taxpayer dollars in the accounts is not, and lawmakers should be ashamed of themselves for not doing so even as the state’s new fiscal year fast approaches.
In the past, the General Assembly has been criticized for sitting on surpluses between $215 million in 2005-06 and $141 million in 2011-12.
The justification for the surpluses — as explained by Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-Narvon — is that the they are needed to keep a governor from unfairly gaining leverage over the General Assembly.
In 1991, Gov. Bob Casey zeroed out the General Assembly’s funding to gain leverage in budget negotiations.
It worked, Denlinger said.
“The crippled House and Senate quickly caved in to the largest tax increase in state history.”
That’s when the legislative accounts were born. According to Denlinger, they prevented then-Gov. Ed Rendell from getting tax increases through the legislature during his two terms in office.
Denlinger makes a good case that experience justifies a reasonable surplus.
With it costing about $25 million per month to run the General Assembly, he said, $120 million in reserves would allow it to operate for about four-and-a-half months — “a level that should provide for taxpayer protection.”
What is completely unjustified, though, is the apparent reluctance of the legislature to disclose how much is currently in the accounts.
From 2007 to 2010, the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission has commissioned, reviewed and released annual audits of the state House and Senate’s legislative accounts — revealing details such as expenses paid and how much is being held in reserve.
The latest audit has yet to be released.
And Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, is right to object.
“Taxpayers are entitled to see how their tax dollars are spent on a timely basis,” he said, expressing frustration that the numbers have not been made public well ahead of budget negotiations for 2014-15.
With the budget due to completed by June 30, the audit should have been released months ago.
If lawmakers are to be trusted with spending the people’s money, they should give an accurate and timely accounting of it.