HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Senate is for the first time giving the public online access to how the chamber and its elected members spend millions of taxpayer dollars on themselves.
Reports showing expenses for the 50 senators for the month of July were posted on the Senate website on Wednesday morning, along with expense information for the chief clerk and secretary. This information will be updated monthly in the future.
Although this is a first for the legislature and a victory for taxpayers, the information provided online still does not give the public a full picture of the chamber’s spending.
Reports often omit key details, including where a lawmaker spent money and why, and records have not been uploaded in a way that allows the public to quickly and meaningfully research or analyze the spending. .
However, posting expenses where the public can easily find them is ” since a long time “, said Russell Eshleman, head of the journalism department at Penn State University.
Taxpayers “Deserve to know how their money is spent”, he said.
The Senate’s decision to publish spending online follows a year-long investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA into internal legislature spending. Journalists analyzed more than 400,000 transactions from 2017 to 2020 and found that the country’s largest full-time legislature had spent $ 203 million just to feed, house, transport and provide district offices and benefits to lawmakers. and their staff – over and above the $ 90,000 from legislators. annual salaries.
Shortly thereafter, Pro Tempore Senate Speaker Jake Corman (R., Center) announced his intention to post the files online. House leaders have expressed interest in doing something similar, but have not announced a plan to do so.
Before Wednesday, the public was forced to go through the tedious and tedious process of filing public record requests for spending information. In the years before Pennsylvania passed a stricter Public Records Act, having access to legislative spending involved physically visiting the offices of the House and Senate with a notepad and pen, and to look at the paper documents, said Eshleman, who made the trip monthly when he was Capitol Hill bureau chief for The Philadelphia Inquirer more than three decades ago.
“I couldn’t make copies” Eshleman said, only reviews records.
The benefits of Corman’s decision to release the recordings go beyond transparency, Eshleman said: “I think it will have a deterrent effect on overspending.”
Information published online includes office rental expenses, postage, mileage and meals. This also includes per diem expenses, lump sum lawmakers can request – without having to provide actual receipts – to cover accommodation and food when they travel more than 80 kilometers outside of their district, including included for voting sessions at the Capitol.
Yet there are limits to what the Senate makes available to the public. For starters, it doesn’t provide any historical spending data, including the start of this year. If members of the public want to know how much the chamber spent on per diems during the worst months of the pandemic, for example, they will need to request the information in writing.
There is also no quick way to add up everyone’s or individual legislators’ expenses for the month of July. Members of the public have yet to create their own database for this, a tedious process that could be avoided if the chamber reported public spending in a different format.
And while the information will be updated monthly in the future, it is unclear whether the information will be presented in a way that allows the public to easily compare spending month to month, let alone ‘make comparisons between individual legislators.
The reports also do not provide the most complete picture of spending. Although brief descriptions are provided, individuals should still apply for open-file receipts or “vouchers” which provide more details.
Eric Epstein, co-founder of good government group Rock the Capital, said the website lacks the data depth or ease of use for citizens like PennWatch, a state website for government salaries and other expenses.
“This system is limited to recent spending and does not reveal trends or allow the taxpayer to raise the curtain and examine providers with paid connections,” said Epstein, a regular user of the state’s public records law.
The expenses made available on Wednesday show that in July, Senate expenses included significant annual expenses, like a payment of $ 248,000 for various Microsoft IT services and more modest payments like a $ 267 chair for the office. a senator and $ 496 on a tech contract. for “Watch the Dark Web”.
This latter expense was paid for by the Chief Clerk of the Senate, and it is not clear whether the contract was for a particular senator or for someone else.
In their investigation, The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that of the $ 203 million the legislature spent over four years on food, shelter, transportation, office rentals and expenses, $ 37 million had been spent. paid to cover the expenses of the District Legislators’ Office, including rent; An additional $ 18 million was spent to cover travel for legislators and their staff; and $ 6 million was spent on subscribing to per diems for lawmakers themselves.
The investigation found that some lawmakers demanded four-year repayments that exceeded $ 200,000, much of it in per diems. When lawmakers drafted the rules for refunds, they decided not to require receipts from lawmakers, making those daily payments, which can run up to $ 200, essentially untraceable.
Their staff, on the other hand, must provide documentation for reimbursements.
As of Wednesday, only 11 of 50 state senators and 18 of 203 state House members posted some level of financial information on their individual websites, according to the Caucus and Spotlight PA review in May. These legislators often still presented limited or outdated information.
Corman’s web page, titled “It’s your money” had not been updated for over six years.