Pa. lawmakers want audit of Wolf's spending as $37.5B spent in impasse

| Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, 10:57 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf's administration has spent $37.5 billion since July 1, even though no state budget was in place for six months, and House and Senate leaders asked the state's fiscal watchdog to audit the spending.

Lawmakers authorized a budget of only $23.4 billion in December.

Wolf is spending as if he has “an open checkbook,” Senate Republican spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said Monday as lawmakers began budget hearings for the next fiscal year. “We're concerned about the checks and balances.”

The amount spent during the impasse was $24.7 billion. Since Jan. 1, the Wolf administration spent about $12.8 billion, according to the Treasury Department.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a York County Democrat like Wolf, said he is reviewing the audit request.

“That's idiotic,” Donna Noble, 80, a Burgettstown Democrat, said of the spending during the impasse. Noble, 80, a retired state auditor, said DePasquale should conduct an audit. “ ... You don't spend money you don't have.”

Jeffrey Sheridan, Wolf's spokesman, did not address why the governor appeared to have spent far more than he requested — $33.7 billion for 12 months — for fiscal 2015-16.

The Republican-controlled legislature in December sent the freshman Democratic governor a $30.3 billion budget after a bipartisan compromise budget with proposed higher state taxes fell apart in the House. Wolf vetoed about $6 billion, including a portion of the money for public schools and the Department of Corrections. He signed the balance into law.

Wolf continues to spend money above amounts the legislature appropriated, said Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Altoona, who branded it “illegal” spending.

Sheridan said the administration “continued operations for all critical functions that impact the health, safety and protection of Pennsylvanians, or was required under federal law, state court decisions or the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

Rep. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson County, said he's asking the House Appropriations Committee to use subpoena power to obtain documents on how Wolf and top aides directed state agencies to spend the money.

“We're not getting straight answers — that's the problem,” Dush said.

Dush and Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, filed Right-to-Know Law requests last fall to look at spending records during the impasse.

Dush wants documentation about a $2 billion loan the administration obtained from Treasury in January. The line of credit was to prevent the general fund cash balance from falling to a negative balance of as much as $922 million, Treasury said.

The Wolf administration drew down $1 billion, Treasury spokesman Scott Sloat said.

Randy Albright, Wolf's budget secretary, told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday that the governor is spending only what the administration considers mandatory spending, such as court-ordered payments to state employees and for the Department of Corrections. He said Wolf's general counsel determined payment is required for state prisons based on federal law.

Yet the state constitution requires the legislature to approve expenditure of state funds, Eichelberger argued.

Wolf vetoed half of the year's corrections funding — it has expired — and he continues to fund the department, even though there's no appropriation, Kocher said.

Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland County, said Wolf is “picking and choosing” what to fund without input from lawmakers. There's no transparency or accountability for millions of tax dollars, senators argued.

Though the governor chooses to fund prisons, he is not funding critical-care hospitals, such as those with 25 beds or fewer that tend to be located in rural areas, Vance said.

“For the administration to turn their back on this kind of need, I don't understand,” Vance said. “It's awful judgment to starve out these hospitals.”

The request for an audit came from House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware County, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Browne, R-Allentown.

“We have the letter; we are reviewing it. We're doing our own internal research,” said DePasquale.

House GOP spokesman Stephen Miskin said the governor's expenditures “may be legitimate spending; it also may not be. It certainly raises a question” when the amount spent in seven months exceeds the budget sent to his desk for 12 months, Miskin said.

The $37 billion is for the general fund, widely considered the spending vehicle for state tax dollars. It includes some federal pass-through grants, Treasury officials say.

Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York County, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has asked several times which accounts were used for spending during the budget impasse, and how much money was in those accounts.

Brad Bumsted is the Tribune-Review's state Capitol reporter.

The House and Senate appropriations panels began hearings on Wolf's proposed budget for 2016-17, although the current fiscal year budget is not completed.

“Overall, Treasury has expended a total of $50 billion for seven months of the fiscal year,” said Sloat. “This represents all funds of the commonwealth. The general fund is just one of 153 funds we currently have active.”

Wolf's proposed $32.7 billion budget for 2016-17 has tax increases, including a proposed boost in the personal income tax of 3.07 to 3.4 percent.

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