Parties and perks on taxpayers' dime was the headline-grabbing news from Pennsylvania's Auditor General investigation of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC). His findings underscore the need for government transparency.
The SRBC, whose four directors meet quarterly to “enhance public welfare through comprehensive planning, water supply allocation, and management of the water resources of the Susquehanna River Basin,” spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on parties and perks. An underlying issue allowing such abuse of public funds: the regulatory body’s exemption from state transparency laws. In the normal course of events, this abuse would not have been discovered. An unrelated complaint against the SRBC prompted the General Assembly to request the audit. The SRBC is so shielded from oversight that special legislation had to be passed before the AG could investigate.
Lack of transparency deprives taxpayers of crucial accountability measures. Unfortunately, transparency violations have become common across Pennsylvania government, with two such examples below ripe for reform.
Pennsylvania's Shadow Budget
State budget discussions revolve around the General Fund. However, spending has increasingly shifted to over 150 off-book accounts—skewing the scope of state spending and shrouding budgeting decisions from public view.
According to recent House Committee testimony, the General Fund accounts for about one-third of the total state budget. This means the “shadow budget” engulfs an increasing portion of state funding.
Budgeting gimmicks have drastic consequences, such as contributing to the state’s currently projected $1.7 billion deficit. Transparency in this process can chip away at irresponsible state budgeting by placing all spending under scrutiny.
Elected officials negotiate expensive contracts with government union leaders—at taxpayer expense and away from public view. For example, Gov. Wolf negotiated contracts in closed-door meetings with campaign donors, costing taxpayers an additional $591 million over three years. Meanwhile, these negotiations exclude the impacted workers and the Pennsylvanians shouldering the bill.
- Regulatory reform — A report from the House State Government Committee recommends establishing regular reviews to hold regulatory bodies accountable, such as Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill’s HB 209 to establish an Independent Office of the Repealer.
- Budget solutions — Moving the shadow budget funds into the General Fund and requiring status reports of the balances can help ensure proper appropriation of tax dollars.
- Contract transparency – Reintroducing reforms to expand Pennsylvania's transparency laws will empower taxpayers and workers with stricter accountability measures by including them in the bargaining process.
Pennsylvanians deserve a government that spends their taxes wisely and efficiently. Instead of waiting for occasional, unrequired audits to uncover inappropriate government spending, elected officials should make such transparency reforms a staple of their 2019 agenda.