Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The LuLac Edition #1510, March 16th, 2011




With the current Pennsylvania budget being crunched, AP writer Mark Levy gave a compelling argument on where new money can be found. Perhaps not in the hinterlands of the Commonwealth but somewhere close to the dome in Harrisburg.
Legislature has hefty cash surplus
No law regulates the money, currently standing at $188.5 million.
HARRISBURG — It’s three times as much money as the state of Pennsylvania is spending on local public libraries this year.
It’s enough money to run the Pennsylvania’s state parks and forests for a couple years.
And it could operate the departments of the state’s three independently elected row officers — attorney general, auditor general and treasurer — for a year, combined.
It’s the Pennsylvania Legislature’s surplus cash — $188.5 million on last July 1, according to the most recent audit — and such a large and unfettered surplus is nearly unheard of in other states. It’s not just any cash surplus that will soon be spent to help paper over a multibillion-dollar budget deficit, but rather a long-standing cash pool that is jealously guarded by the Legislature, and outlasts nearly all serving legislators.
Justified as an emergency reserve to protect the balance of power should the governor cut off legislative funding in a budget battle, the Legislature nevertheless has created no special rules to limit the use of the money.
It does not wall off the money to prevent it from being shifted to another legislative purpose — which can be done by small committees of top lawmakers that meet in secret. The Legislature simply blends the surplus with the rest of the money it gets in every budget year.
The Legislature has not passed a law — or even created its own internal policy — that caps the size of the surplus or says how large it should be.
Pennsylvania’s Legislature is the largest full-time state lawmaking body in the nation and, based on a 2009 survey, was the second-most expensive at about $300 million a year to operate.
The surplus has been accumulated since at least the early 1980s, as the Legislature has budgeted, in many years, for more taxpayer money than it actually needs or spends.
State law requires unspent program money to return to the state’s main bank account at the end of a fiscal year, unless a waiver is granted by the governor’s budget secretary. Every year, the Legislature inserts a provision into law to allow its unspent money in a slew of legislative accounts to continue rolling over from one year to the next.
The chairman of the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission, Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, noted that the panel of eight lawmakers has — not once, but twice — unanimously approved a recommendation to adopt a policy that limits or eliminates the surplus.
A good government advocate, Tim Potts, the president of Democracy Rising Pa., said the surplus is a bad idea, both because it allows the Legislature simply to wait out the governor’s demands, and because an idle pot of money invites trouble.
“The longer it sits around like that,” Potts said, “the more likely it is for something nefarious to happen.”
MARK LEVY: Associated Press.


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