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The Capitol

Pa. House drops ‘legislative privilege,’ will release lawmaker spending details

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House officials initially argued the state Constitution gave them the right to shield certain information about how lawmakers and their staff spend money.
Kalim A. Bhatti / Philadelphia Inquirer

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After shielding spending details for months, leaders in the Pennsylvania House are reversing course and will publicly disclose how and why lawmakers spend hundreds of millions in taxpayer money.

The House announced the reversal on Thursday, more than a week after stories published by The Caucus and Spotlight PA revealed House lawyers had blacked out spending details in thousands of pages of records released to the news organizations.

House officials initially argued the state Constitution gave them the right to shield certain information about how lawmakers and their staff spend money. But on Thursday, they backed off that position and restored dozens of spending details and promised to turn over hundreds more in the coming weeks.

Republican leaders will also propose a new House rule that would narrow the scope of redactions in the future, said Jake Smeltz, chief of staff for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster).

“We are open and transparent about our expenditures,” House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) tweeted Thursday, a day after his office hand-delivered copies of some of his expenses without blacked-out details.

The Caucus and Spotlight PA sought thousands of records as part of an ongoing effort to document how the nation’s largest full-time legislature spends about $360 million in taxpayer money it receives each year.

In making many of the redactions, the House drew on an obscure provision in the state Constitution aimed at giving lawmakers wide latitude on speech on the House floor. It was designed to give them immunity from defamation suits in official proceedings, but the legislature had applied it to a larger “sphere” of their day-to-day duties.

The Senate is still taking that position.

Newly unredacted documents provided by the House show it had shielded spending details, even for routine lawmaker duties.

For example, a $180 charge out of the speaker’s account in May 2017 was first described as, “Breakfast meeting with [REDACTED] to discuss [REDACTED].” It turns out, the hidden portion was that Turzai had met with the “Lancaster Delegation” to discuss “legislative priorities and events in Members’ districts.”

Another one about a $73.31 breakfast meeting during state budget negotiations redacted who top staffers had met with and what they discussed. The unredacted reports revealed the staffers had met with “Senate leadership” to discuss “voting calendar for the week of 6/5/2017.”

Many rank-and-file GOP lawmakers told The Caucus they did not know some of their expenses were being blacked out and some complained to leadership in recent days.

“When it comes to anything I’m doing where I’m getting reimbursed by the state, absolutely, you guys should have the right to know it,” said Rep. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson County). “And the public should too.”

The news organizations are still challenging redactions in the Senate, which also has taken the unusual step of scrubbing details about thousands of expenses in response to an open records request.

Sen. Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny) said she was “livid” about the removal of the details and took the extra step of posting all her expense reports on her website. Williams said in a statement Thursday she “was not consulted about what if any redactions should be made.”

Senate open records officers “instead made their decision to exert their definition of legislative privilege on my behalf allegedly to protect me,” Williams said. “Who are they really protecting by unilaterally redacting public information?”

“Members of the General Assembly should be completely transparent with how taxpayers dollars are spent,” said Williams.

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