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State secrets

| Saturday, May 5, 2012, 8:30 a.m.

HARRISBURG - Taxpayers pay at least $185 million per year to run the state House of Representatives.

On top of that, the House accounts for approximately $77 million of the $135 million total surplus for the General Assembly controlled by House and Senate leaders of both parties and spent on a whim.

Yet incredibly, the House refuses to release a list of the 42 members who have repaid the so-called unvouchered expenses -- the device used to circumvent the state Constitution's prohibition on lawmakers getting a salary hike before they stand for re-election.

By doing so, the House is shielding its members who refuse to return the midterm raise.

On July 7, the Legislature approved a 11-54 percent pay raise for legislators, judges and top executive branch officials. Judges got the raise right away -- top state officials did not.

Legislators may not give themselves a raise during their current term. But members were allowed to take the salary increase early by calling it something other than salary -- thus the term "unvouchered expenses." Overall, 158 House members and senators took the early salary boost.

Leaders who led members down a primrose path didn't anticipate the explosion of public anger that ultimately led to repeal of the pay hike on Nov. 16. The new law didn't require repayment.

On. Dec. 1, the Senate released a list of those who voluntarily returned money.

No big deal, right?

But the House is guarding the list as if it were a state secret.

The state's open records law, created by the Legislature, of course does not apply to the Legislature.

So who decided the House wouldn't release the information?

It was Brian Preski, chief of staff to House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, one of the pay-hike engineers.

Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse.

In an odd twist, Preski was also functioning as House clerk in the aftermath of the pay hike.

The House clerk, gatekeeper of House records, is usually an obscure bureaucrat agreed to by both political parties. In the past the House alternated clerks between Democrats and Republicans.

A vacancy was created when former clerk Ted Mazia retired. Preski will soon be replaced on a full-time basis by the amiable Roger Nick, former chief of staff to the late House Speaker Matthew Ryan, R-Delaware County.

Preski's dual role sounds benign. But the top staffer for the House Republicans' top dog was overseeing expense accounts for Democrats and Republicans. A Democrat legislator should have had serious concerns about that.

Here's the point. Perzel's top staffer (read Perzel) was overseeing the decisions on which records would be released to the public regarding the pay raise.

While the Senate clearly identified the senators who had waived the unvouchered expenses in early August and e-mailed the lists to interested parties, the House provided only the salaries of 203 members, creating a maze as to who actually took the money.

Then came Preski's recent decision not to release a list of the 42 House members who returned the unvouchered expenses.

Some of these lawmakers' names may eventually be gleaned from public records, but it takes an insider's insider to wade through the House record morass.

The obfuscation may be good politics inside the House GOP caucus, but it is a boneheaded move with an already skeptical and angry public.

Just when the pay raise should have gone away, the House leadership was giving fodder to pay opponents now seeking legislative reform.

Where do they get off, anyway?

It's your money.

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