Taxpayers have the right to see expenses claimed by members of Pa. House online [editorial] | Our opinion
As Sam Janesch and Brad Bumsted of LNP Media Group watchdog publication The Caucus reported in Monday’s edition, six months after the Pennsylvania Senate took a historic step towards spending transparency – with senators’ expenses now published online – “the House is far from making the same move. Taxpayers still have to file right-to-know requests – as the caucus did to report the story – for most information “This process can take more than a month and can still produce heavily redacted or incomplete records,” Janesch and Bumsted noted.
We understand why some members of the State House might be reluctant to have their expenses posted online for all to see.
If we had spent $144 of taxpayers’ money on a “tripod selfie light ring” as the Chief Clerk of the House did on behalf of an MP or MP in August, we would be embarrassed, not least because you can get a decent ring light – tripod included – for less than half that price.
We’d be even more reluctant to report other tech-related purchases that Janesch and Bumsted found on House’s expense reports.
These purchases included a 360-degree video conferencing camera and microphone that cost $999; part of a teleprompter mirror – not even an entire one – which cost $865.41; six photo shoot backdrops – including green screen – which cost $4,993.06; and six Canon digital cameras that cost $14,094.
Why on earth would lawmakers need to spend nearly $5,000 of taxpayers’ money on photo shoot backdrops? Isn’t the State Capitol rotunda quaint enough? Was someone unveiling a new fashion line or a new ad campaign?
These are ridiculous amounts of money. And we might never have known about them if the caucus hadn’t filed a right-to-know request.
State House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Drumore Township, told the Caucus he believed posting expense reports online was “best practice” — he said he had done so since 2007, when he was in his first term – and that members can continue to do so individually. About 10% of the House’s 203 members do so now, The Caucus reported.
But Cutler also said that automatically posting each representative’s expenses online would require a change to House rules, requiring a majority vote of members of the Republican-controlled chamber. And there is no proposed rule change pending.
It’s commendable that Cutler has been posting his expenses online since he was a freshman lawmaker.
But he’s no longer a freshman – he’s the Speaker of the House, a position that gives him considerable power. He could make the aforementioned rule changes a priority. We urge him to do so without delay.
“There’s no critical mass to do that,” Gene Stilp, a longtime reformer and legislative critic, told Caucus. “There is no real effort from the junior members to make sure the leaders do it. With today’s technology, this is an easy thing to do.
It’s a very easy thing to do. Many people in the private sector are required by their employers to do this (and they must also present receipts). Taxpayers and voters should insist that the legislators who work for us adhere to the same practice. We shouldn’t have to file right-to-know requests to see how members of the State House are spending taxpayers’ money.
As one former Caucus member said, posting expenses online would deter potential bad behavior.
It would discourage lawmakers “from doing things against the interests of taxpayers,” former R-Chester County Rep. Dan Truitt told the Caucus. “They are less likely to live high on the hog if they know someone is watching them.”
During his tenure, Truitt has admirably attempted — and sadly unsuccessfully — to eliminate legislators’ per diems, daily expenses for food and lodging that they may miserably claim on top of their generous salaries.
Truitt endorsed the state Senate’s approach of having expenses published by the office of the chief clerk of the Senate, which handles senators’ reimbursements.
The House has a chief clerk who could do that as well.
As Janesch and Bumsted wrote, “The Senate began releasing its full spending every month last September, following a series of stories from The Caucus and Spotlight PA. Those stories revealed lawmakers spent $203 million, not including salaries and benefits, from 2017 to 2020.
“The report found lawmakers spent $37 million on district offices and $20 million on outside attorneys over those four years. About $20 million went straight into lawmakers’ pockets in the form of meal reimbursements, mileage subsidies, per diems and other expenses.
So we’re talking about stacks of taxpayers’ money. And we are not comfortable with the idea that so much money is being spent by members of the House without transparency.
As The Caucus reported, the Senate’s online reports can be found on the chamber’s Right-to-Know Law webpage. They are updated monthly and now cover the period from July 2021 to January 2022.
“They list the expenses of each senator and all employees under the chief clerk, showing the amount, the recipient, the date, the person who authorized the expense and a brief description of each payment,” explained Janesch and Bumsted. “The information includes district office leases, port charges, mileage and meals incurred by each senator. This also includes per diem expenses.
The system is not perfect, they point out: some expenditure details are missing. And there “is no readily searchable database allowing members of the public to easily search for total expenses or expenses by category – such as the total amount a senator received in per diems for the month.”
But it’s a big improvement over relying on individual members of the State House to self-publish their spending online. As things stand, there is no need to keep expenses up to date or report them in a uniform way.
We appreciate that State Representative Mindy Fee, a Republican from Manheim, is among the small percentage of members who post their expenses online. And we’d like to embroider on pillows what she said in Caucus: “Listen. It’s the people’s money. They should see how it is spent.
But there needs to be a system in place to ensure the expenses of the 203 members of the State House are posted online and in a consistent manner.
The late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden reportedly observed that the “true test” of someone’s character is what he or she “does when no one is watching.”
What happens when no one is watching state legislators is that they spend our money freely and shamelessly.
In Harrisburg, the more eyes, the better.