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Despite warnings, state lawmakers continue to hold checkbooks

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 12:57 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania General Assembly reduced its surplus from $183 million to $140 million in fiscal year 2011-12 but failed to eliminate dozens of checkbooks that House leaders and committee chairmen continue to use despite auditors' repeated recommendations to eliminate them.

“The checkbooks are not subject to the central control of the House controller,” auditor Steve Baloga of Mitchell & Titus told the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission on Wednesday. Eliminating them is a recommendation the Legislature's private auditor has made for several years. “The big recommendation is don't have the checkbooks,” Baloga said.

Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-Lancaster County, chairman of the commission, said the number of checking accounts for House members gradually dropped from more than 100 to 36 in the fiscal year.

In one case there was no receipt for a $69 dinner and there were other checks made payable to the lawmakers overseeing the account. “It is not a best practice to write a check to yourself,” Baloga said. For the most part there were “clerical errors,” Baloga said.

Denlinger said he didn't consider it abuse. The ultimate decision on who gets checkbooks is up to House leadership, he said.

“What is the problem?” said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, and Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods. “We'll take a look at the recommendations. It's something important to the chairmen.”

“There's no excuse for having multiple checkbooks and access to a slush fund,” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, a reform group, who attended and was asked to leave the meeting for asking questions.

The Senate got rid of senators' checkbooks in 1981, Chief Clerk Russ Faber said. “We now have one checkbook maintained here in the Chief Clerk's Office,” Faber said.

The Legislature paid about $185,000 for the audit that covers the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012.

Copies of the audit were unavailable at the advisory panel's meeting but later posted on Denlinger's website. Denlinger said it would be illegal to publicly disseminate the draft copy of an audit before the commission approves it.

“I don't buy that for a second,” said Tim Potts, a former House staffer active in legislative reform, who also attended the meeting. “It (the audit) belongs to us. It's not their document. It's our document. It's held back in case there's a last-minute need to sanitize it.”

The amount of the Legislature's reserve has been a contentious point for years among some who believe it should be spent on pressing budget needs. Leaders have held that the reserve is necessary in the event of a budget impasse with the governor to make sure the legislative branch continues to function.

Pennsylvania has a Republican governor and GOP-controlled General Assembly.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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