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Break the 'Groundhog Day' auditing loop

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

HARRISBURG

The annual meeting of the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission reminds me of the time warp that served as a theme of the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.”

Each year, this obscure commission gets together to accept the “independent” annual audit prepared by the same auditing firm, Mitchell & Titus. This year's audit cost taxpayers $185,000.

There are never any substantial findings to speak of. But that's not the auditors' fault. They are given narrow guidelines to make sure the dollars add up. It's not a performance audit of the $306 million spent by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, the largest full-time legislature in the nation.

Like the time loop experienced by fictional TV reporter Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” the meetings of the advisory commission replay from one year to the next. Lawmakers who probably question how they ever landed on the commission meet in the same room and do the same things — deny government activists the right to speak, hand out a flimsy agenda with no names or specifics, announce a legislative surplus of $100 million or more and in a proud moment, note how much it's gone down, and listen to auditors spout meaningless drivel about legislative funds.

The auditor notes that leaders and committee chairmen shouldn't have checkbooks. The commission members nod and bury the recommendation every year.

The checkbooks aren't under the review of the House controller, like other House accounts. They use these checkbooks for dinners, catered events, incidentals.

House Republican spokesman Stephen Miskin suggests no problems have surfaced from use of the accounts and that they are important to committee chairmen.

Right.

This bipartisan panel could do a couple things to improve next year's meeting:

• Give government activists, who have legitimate questions about why the auditing contract isn't subject to open bids, 10 minutes to speak at the start of the hearing. This year, Rock the Capital's Eric Epstein was asked to leave after asking questions anyway as the hearing proceeded. A Capitol cop escorted him out.

• Provide an agenda with names and sufficient detail on what the meeting is about.

• At the start of the meeting, provide the public with copies of the audit or a reasonable substitute. Now, Chairman Gordon Denlinger and a House GOP staff lawyer claim it is illegal to hand out the audit before the commission has approved it. That sounds like nonsense. But avoid the issue by handing out a two- or three-page summary of the main numbers and findings at the outset.

Remember, the public is paying for the audit.

As it stands now, these guys blow in, act as if the spectators (media and activists) aren't there, approve the audit and get out of Dodge as quickly as possible.

This isn't rocket science. Denlinger, a Lancaster Republican, seems like a conscientious and sincere lawmaker.

And short of having a real audit, a little common sense, public relations and respect for the taxpayer would break the “Groundhog Day” loop.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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