Pa. auditor general to legislature: May I look at your books?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Pennsylvania’s auditor general is the state’s top fiscal watchdog, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are not misspent.

But the AG can’t follow the money wherever it leads. The auditor general is constitutionally forbidden from looking into the finances of the legislature and judiciary since those are separate branches of government.

Well aware that he can’t make the General Assembly open its books, Eugene DePasquale on Thursday asked the legislature to invite his auditors in for a peek.

Specifically, he wants to examine lawmakers’ $118.4 million surplus that it holds in reserve to pay the bills in the event of a budget standoff. Of course, that just happened two years ago when the caucuses ran out of money and had to borrow to fund their operations.

“There is an argument for the General Assembly having a legislative surplus,” said DePasquale, a former state representative from York.

But how much of a surplus and what exactly is it spending the money on in years there isn’t a stalemate?

Those are questions DePasquale would like to answer. Currently, the legislature is sitting on roughly a third of its yearly operating budget while a prison is closing, human service agencies are merging, and cuts are coming to deal with a $3 billion budget deficit. DePasquale insists that in such austere times, every tax dollar should be in play.

“The one entity that is off limits to that is the legislative surplus, and that’s unconscionable,” DePasquale said.

The auditor general has no jurisdiction over the Philadelphia Parking Authority, long considered a patronage mill and secretive. But DePasquale noted that the PPA invited his auditors in.

“I think the Pennsylvania legislature should not allow the Philadelphia Parking Authority to beat them in the openness and transparency game,” DePasquale said.

But it’s a game the legislature doesn’t intend to play. DePasquale’s news conference succeeded in uniting both parties in the legislature. They both agreed that his idea is a bad one and both responded quickly to his press conference.

House Democratic Spokesman Bill Patton sent this statement:

“We appreciate the auditor general’s perspective, but there’s simply not an appropriate role for him here. Legislators in both parties respect the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches and will continue to abide by it.”

Senate Republican Spokesperson Jennifer Kocher struck a similar chord with her statement:

“While we appreciate his interest, his auditors are no better than the independent auditors who perform the review of the legislature. In fact, I would argue they are more independent given the political nature of the elected auditor general.”

While it’s true that the General Assembly hires an accounting firm to look at its surplus account to ensure the numbers add up, DePasquale argues that’s not the same as what he’s proposing.

“They are not quote-unquote independent audits because they (the legislature) can hire and fire that entity,” DePasquale said. “I don’t answer to them. That allows it to be a purely independent audit.”

DePasquale noted that the public would overwhelmingly support his office’s audit of the legislative account.

Capitol critics, however, dismissed the DePasquale news conference as a political stunt by an elected official seeking attention and higher office.

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