Auditor general talks about budget stalemate impact, reports

The man charged with making sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, and bills paid, by state agencies had something to say about the end of Pennsylvania’s epic budget battle.

“If this was a football game, both teams would have gotten unsportsmanlike conduct penalties,” Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a meeting Thursday with the Centre Daily Times.

If this was a football game, both teams would have gotten unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on budget stalemate

DePasquale is a Democrat, but he didn’t pick sides in tackling the issue of fault in the nine-month-long game of chicken that was the fight over funding between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-majority legislature. The state went without a budget from July 1 as the two sides haggled over education on the governor’s side versus pension reform on the other.

It ended Wednesday when Wolf said he would allow the most recent legislative budget to go into effect, although he would not sign it. The new budget becomes law Monday.

“We had a lot of bad options. The governor picked the least bad option available,” said DePasquale.

He did comment on the politics of it.

“The two sides were not that far apart,” he said. “That’s the frustrating part.”

Regardless of party, DePasquale’s focus, as the financial and procedural watchdog of the state, is on the bottom line. Last week, he released a statement on the growing impact of the standoff on agencies like school districts. He was gathering information on the real money cost of the impasse on school districts that were borrowing money or making other arrangements to keep the doors open, with a report expected in April.

In December, the auditor general’s office reported that as of that time, about $1 billion had been borrowed, incurring fees and interest of between $40 million and $50 million.

DePasquale said Thursday that those costs would not be reimbursed by the state, creating a loss to the districts that incurred them through no fault of their own.

There are other reports pending from his office on issues close to Centre County residents.

The first one expected is a comprehensive look at the PACE program, which provides prescription drug assistance to low-income seniors.

The auditor general can look into governmental agencies in the state on a regular basis, but he can also opt to do special deep dives into a program.

“I chose to do this over special concerns,” DePasquale said.

That doesn’t mean that there was a suspicion of a problem.

“It’s just, is the state getting the biggest bang for its buck? Are we making good deals on behalf of seniors in PA?” he said.

Is the state getting the biggest bang for its buck?

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on PACE program

DePasquale had similar concerns in his exploration of the electronic benefit transfer program in Pennsylvania that provides cash assistance to low-income individuals and families. That investigation started a year and a half ago but was halted when the office uncovered a problem it wanted to fix immediately.

“We had to delay it,” he said, after the audit turned up that some people were still getting cash benefits after they died.

It wasn’t an instance of fraud or deliberate abuse, he said, so much as “there wasn’t the appropriate check in the system.” With that bug left in place until the end of the investigation, the state could have lost a lot of money, so the investigation was delayed to handle it right away.

The finished report is set to be published in May or June.

A newer audit will hit very close to home. A review of the Department of Corrections started about a month ago. Centre County is home to two state prisons, and there are others in surrounding counties. Problems in at least three are part of the reason for looking into the department, DePasquale said.

He confirmed that the 2013 rape and assault of a Rockview state prison clerk by inmate Omar Best was one of those factors, as well as the 2015 riot at Houtzdale state prison and the escape of two inmates from Quehanna Boot Camp, both in Clearfield County.

That investigation is reviewing policies and situations throughout the entire prison system, including staffing and safety.

When concluded, the report and recommendations will go to the governor and secretary of corrections.

But the most Centre County specific of his audits won’t start until this fall. DePasquale will be conducting an audit of Penn State.

It is not, he specified, an audit about the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal or an attempt to redo the Freeh report. It won’t focus on football.

“We’ve already done this at Pitt. We’ve done that with the (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education),” he said. “It’s not a witch hunt.”

What it is, DePasquale said, is a look at how the university is operating, how the administration is functioning and how the parts work together.

Penn State falls under the possibility of that kind of audit as a state-related university. While it is the only land grant university in Pennsylvania, the state has three other state-related schools: Pitt, Temple and Lincoln.

Keeping track of what’s happening in education is DePasquale’s pet passion as auditor general.

Part of it is the importance of education. Part of it is the financial impact.

“It’s a lot of money. And it’s not just, is it being spent legally. It’s is it being spent effectively,” he said. “It’s important to so many aspects of Pennsylvanians’ lives.”

DePasquale is running for re-election in 2016.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce