The Capitol

The public could gain easy access to info about how Pa. lawmakers spend taxpayer money on perks

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As it stands now, the public can request information on legislative expenses through the state’s public records law, but getting those documents can take weeks and sometimes longer if there is a dispute over access.
As it stands now, the public can request information on legislative expenses through the state’s public records law, but getting those documents can take weeks and sometimes longer if there is a dispute over access.
TIM TAI / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — A long-awaited transparency bill that would make legislative expenses accessible online for easy public viewing unanimously cleared a key state House of Representatives panel Tuesday.

“How can anyone be against it?” said state Rep. Scott Conklin (D., Centre) as the House State Government Committee brought the measure up for a vote.

The bill, introduced by state Rep. Keith Gillespie (R., York), would require legislators and staff in both the state House and Senate to post their expenses online on a quarterly basis, including reimbursements for meals, travel, office furniture, and overnight stays in Harrisburg.

That expense information, according to the bill, would be searchable and would have to include the reason the expense was incurred, who incurred it, and which legislative account was used to provide the reimbursement.

The full state House could vote on the proposal as early as next month. If approved by that chamber as well as the state Senate, the bill would take effect in January 2023.

“Transparency and accountability are fundamental to our system of government,” Gillespie said Tuesday before the vote. “Citizens have a right to know how their elected representatives are spending their tax dollars. In the information age, that access should be simple, straightforward, and unencumbered.”

As it stands now, the public can request information on legislative expenses through the state’s public records law, but getting those documents can take weeks and sometimes longer if there is a dispute over access.

The legislative push to post expenses online came after an investigative series last year by The Caucus and Spotlight PA documented how the Pennsylvania General Assembly — one of the largest and most expensive full-time legislatures in the country — spent hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars with little or no transparency.

The investigation revealed that the legislature spent $203 million from 2017 through 2020 just to feed, house, transport, and provide rental offices and other perks for lawmakers and their staff. One in every 10 of those dollars went into lawmakers’ pockets in the form of reimbursements for meals, mileage subsidies, per diems, and other expenses.

In September 2021, the state Senate began posting its expenses online on a monthly basis. State House leaders at the time said they were looking into how to best do the same but have yet to follow through.

While Gillespie’s bill would make it far easier to access the information, it is not a panacea.

Both chambers, the news organizations found, often redact key information about the expenses, most notably, the more detailed explanation of the expenses. And even unredacted records often don’t tell the full story, as lawmakers and staff sometimes use vague descriptions to explain their purchases.

Gillespie’s bill is among several good-government changes being considered in the legislature. There are separate bills proposing a gift ban on public officials, as well as a package of bills that would rein in the influence of lobbyists.

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