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The Capitol

Inside the year-long fight to figure out how the Pa. legislature spends taxpayer money on itself

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The Caucus and Spotlight PA began filing Right-to-Know Law requests in November 2019 in an attempt to answer a simple question: How does one of the largest and most expensive full-time legislatures in the country spend the taxpayer money it allots itself?
CHARLES FOX / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — The Caucus and Spotlight PA began filing Right-to-Know Law requests in November 2019 in an attempt to answer a simple question: How does one of the largest and most expensive full-time legislatures in the country spend the taxpayer money it allots itself?

Reporters sought every legislative expense other than salaries and benefits — a broader request than had ever been attempted before, according to House and Senate officials. The inquiry kicked off a series of conversations with those same officials and repeated adjustments to the language of the requests to clarify them.

Thousands of pages of expense records were eventually turned over, but they were littered with redactions, often obscuring the purpose of meals and trips, and shielding the names of individuals or groups lawmakers met with.

At one point, the Senate took it a step further. Instead of redacting information about what their expenses were for, they withheld it completely — making it appear as if they didn’t have that information. Open records advocates were alarmed when they learned of the Senate’s action in turning over incomplete records.

Some rank-and-file lawmakers, whose own expenses were redacted, were astounded.

“Somebody’s being too much of an attorney,” Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-Lycoming County, told The Caucus. “It seems pretty silly to me, because if it’s taxpayer dollars, the taxpayer should know what it’s being spent on.”

The news organizations appealed those redactions, initiating a process that allows a designated House or Senate lawyer — hand-picked by legislative leaders whose expenses were in question — to serve as judge.

Both chambers backtracked, providing most of the documents again without redactions, though the Senate stood by it’s argument that a “legislative privilege” allowed them to continue withholding some details about how public officials spent public money.

By early 2021, reporters had filed more than two dozen open-records requests resulting in tens of thousands of pages of expense reports and, in some cases, actual receipts.

The journalists partnered with a team of Temple University students led by professor Aron Pilhofer to strip that mass of data out of clunky PDF pages and, for the first time ever, create a searchable, sortable database of the legislature’s expenses.

The database, built over the course of several months, includes nearly 400,000 separate records documenting more than $200 million in spending — a trove of transactions that, before now, was hidden behind the ornate doors of the Pennsylvania Capitol.

Over the next year, The Caucus and Spotlight PA will examine and make public specific areas of spending by the legislature as part of its ongoing effort to follow the money and track the spending of taxpayer dollars.

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Photo of Angela Couloumbis

Angela Couloumbis

Investigative Reporter

Mike Wereschagin, Brad Bumsted, and Sam Janesch Of The Caucus

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