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Transparency

How big-money state contracts can remain hidden from taxpayers

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Your state government spent upwards of $80 billion last fiscal year. If you want to know more about where your tax dollars went and who received them, that gets a bit tricky.

You can dig into government contracts and their price tags through an online search tool maintained by the state treasurer’s office. But what you might not know is that the database is missing an untold number of contracts.

That’s because, while government agencies are required by law to upload contracts worth at least $5,000, the law has no teeth, there’s nothing that forces those agencies to comply, and, sometimes, they don’t.

In this case, transparency is optional.

We at Spotlight PA encountered the loophole several weeks ago while seeking details about a purchase of nearly $160,000 in guns and related equipment — since relegated to storage — by the state inspector general’s office.

A spokesperson for the office confirmed the purchase and the fact that its employees cannot legally carry the weapons. But the expenditure was nowhere to be found on the treasurer’s office e-Library, where contracts are publicized. That means taxpayers (including at least two state lawmakers) had no idea about the six-figure blunder.

It’s not clear why the contract never made it online, and agencies do not have to tell the treasurer’s office when or why they decide not to post one.

After Spotlight PA’s story, Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) urged his fellow legislators to force state agencies to follow the disclosure law. He’s asking the Senate to add the requirement into his bill codifying an updated version of the treasurer’s transparency portal. The measure unanimously passed the House and is awaiting consideration before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In January, State Treasurer Joe Torsella began sending agencies twice-a-year reminders to upload their contracts to the portal, but scofflaws remain unchecked. And tracking how the government spends tax dollars remains difficult.

Photo of Matt McKinney

Matt McKinney