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Jack Wagner veers off course

| Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, 9:18 p.m.

HARRISBURG

It was difficult to tell whether Auditor General Jack Wagner's DVD on Pennsylvania's deficient bridges was self-promotion or public service.

The state's fiscal watchdog has been lobbying for the governor and Legislature to make bridge repair the No. 1 issue in the abbreviated fall legislative session that starts this week. But the chances of lawmakers approving a gas tax hike and higher fees before the November election are slim to none.

Wagner says he'd support such a plan but he's leaving office in January.

Wagner spent $4,600 in state tax dollars on 300 DVDs mailed to community and labor leaders and media organizations across the state.

His cause is legitimate. He's probably right that a bridge could collapse, given that Pennsylvania leads the nation in structurally deficient spans.

But the DVD could have been called “Jack Wagner's Greatest Hits.” It was video from TV newscasts across the state featuring Wagner. Standing under decrepit bridges, Wagner peeled debris off girders or held up droppings from a bridge's underbelly.

Aside from the self-promotion, here's the problem: This isn't the auditor general's job.

The auditor general audits state accounts and makes sure programs are running efficiently. He can audit any agency — except the Legislature. It isn't the auditor general's job to decide or recommend how to spend state money.

That was Wagner's job as a former state senator.

He could make arguments that his DVD exercise falls under efficiency in transportation spending; he argues that projects not undertaken now will only cost more later. But that's a stretch.

Wagner has been one of the state's best auditor generals. He's done some hard-hitting audits of welfare spending, the use of state vehicles, alleged improprieties at charter schools and reform of Penn State's system of governance following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. During the 2010 campaigns, Republicans touted the Democrat auditor general's findings as arguments to cut costs.

But his campaign to fix bridges, roads and mass transit with a multibillion-dollar transportation funding package (recommended by commissions of former Gov. Ed Rendell and Gov. Tom Corbett) seems out of sync.

Corbett has declined to wade into the funding issue, saying fixing public pensions is the state's top fiscal issue. And people generally don't want to pay higher gas taxes with prices at the pump just below $4 a gallon.

So is Wagner right about the problem? Of course.

But he could be doing one more audit on something else with all the energy he's put into deficient-bridge news conferences.

Wagner says he's seriously considering running for mayor of Pittsburgh. He looked like a candidate in the DVDs. But, again, the issue really is not within his purview.

Wagner will leave office with a strong record of saving tax dollars. But this episode at the end of his career is not consistent with the bulk of his tenure.

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

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