Share This Page

A flush slush fund

| Sunday, May 6, 2012, 12:31 a.m.

HARRISBURG -- There was a huge disconnect when members of the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission, six months late, considered the audit of 2010-11 legislative spending.

It was as if the Senate and House members were oblivious to the public. There was no agenda for the public to review in advance, much less at last week's meeting. Only upon request were a few passed out. Same thing later with the audit.

The purpose of this panel is to protect the Legislature's slush fund, now at $183.6 million.

That's enough to plug some of the budget cuts some groups are protesting daily at the Capitol. It's a slush fund, rather than a surplus, which they like to call it, because during the 2005 pay-raise fiasco, lawmakers were authorized to collect the raise early, in contravention of the state Constitution. This account was the source of the money.

Legislative leaders agreed previously to return $62.7 million to the treasury, which hasn't happened yet. When it does, the surplus will be "down" to $121 million, still enough to operate a small state agency.

Supposedly, the slush fund is for a budget crisis so the governor can't hold the upper hand by vetoing legislative operating money.

The meeting began with the commission calling an executive session to meet secretly. The stated purpose was a "personal matter," said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia. There is no such exception for closed-door meetings under the Sunshine Law. Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-Lancaster, the chairman, later said it was about getting quorums at meetings. An earlier scheduled meeting had been postponed.

"What really required the secrecy of an 'executive session'? Or was it simply illegal?" wrote Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA.

During the meeting, Stephen Baloga, an Ernst & Young partner, said some mind-blowing things. His firm conducted the audit.

"We have concluded we are in fact independent of the General Assembly," Baloga said.

Really? The firm was paid $230,000 in taxpayers' money. Sure, it is a big-name firm with credibility. But how can anyone be truly independent of his employer?

This is the Legislature's audit of itself, said Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital.

"Where is the RFP (request for proposal)?" Epstein kept saying from the audience. He wanted to know why the Ernst & Young contract was not competitively bid. No evidence was produced confirming that.

Baloga also said the audit "should not be used by people not familiar with the General Assembly's procedures."

Really? Why not? We paid for it.

Baloga went on to tell the committee that auditors found some instances of legislators being reimbursed with tax money for alcoholic beverages with meals. "We're talking about a drink here or there, a glass of wine, not a large amount of alcohol," Baloga said.

Their names were not revealed and it wasn't in the audit.

Denlinger said the lawmakers involved were required to reimburse the state. But he could not cite any House policy prohibiting alcohol purchases with state money.

Steve Miskin, a House Republican spokesman, said later a policy would be formulated and approved as part of new rules.

That won't happen until 2013.

In the next audit, the commission might get a 12 percent discount by using a little-known affiliate of Ernst & Young, Baloga said.

If so, where's the 12 percent discount for being overcharged this year?, Epstein said.

Lawmakers did not like the reformers shouting out questions from the audience. But they had no choice.

The commission was steamrolling the public's concerns.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.