While the rest of the state budget is swimming in red ink and deficits, state lawmakers enjoy a $153 million surplus to fund their operations.
Wednesday morning in the Capitol, the public found out just how many taxpayer dollars are being held in reserve by legislative leaders.
The Legislative Audit Commission is made up of Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate. The report was due last December and came in six months late.
It is typically a dry, uneventful meeting in which those lawmakers are briefed by an accountant who runs down the numbers. Wednesday, good government activists Gene Stilp and Eric Epstein spiced things up.
As Commission Chairman Representative Mark Keller (R-Perry) opened the meeting, Stilp tried to ask a question.
"Excuse me, there is no public comment at this time," Keller said. "There is no public comment, Gene. If you want to act like an adult, act like an adult. Sit down and let us conduct our business."
Business included the aforementioned auditor who said as of June, 2013, the legislative account was $153 million. He also highlighted a few other facts and figures.
When the auditor paused, Stilp tried to ask him a question. Keller objected again.
"Excuse me," Keller said.
"Yes sir, how can I help you?" Stilp shot back.
"I'm in charge of the meeting not you," Keller said sternly. "I haven't even asked for your input, so excuse me. Could you act like an adult? Can you act like an adult?"
Keller was just recently appointed to the Audit Commission and is not to blame for the report being released six months late.He promised to do better.
"This is not the practice of how I operate," Keller said. "You will see that come next year."
A half-hour after the meeting started, it ended. Lawmakers paraded out and continued to ignore Stilp, who continued to ask questions. At least one of them was valid and will soon be answered as lawmakers grapple with a $1.4 billion budget deficit.
"How much of the slush fund is gonna go toward helping reduce the budgets that the taxpayers have to pay?" Stilp asked without answer.
The reserve fund exists, in theory, to protect the legislature from being strong-armed by a governor during testy budget negotiations. It would ensure financial independence for lawmakers and their staffs.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin insists it's important and it does come into play.
"During the 100-plus day standoff with Governor Rendell, we actually spent about $50 million from that reserve to ensure that the General Assembly did not cave in to his income tax demands," Miskin said.
But Stilp's question remains, and it's valid: do lawmakers really need to hold $153 million taxpayer dollars in reserve?
Lawmaker-turned-Auditor General Eugene DePasquale says no.
"One hundred and fifty-three million dollars seems excessively high, and I think there's a lot of art and music programs that have been lost over the years that would be happy to use some of that money," DePasquale said.
On the Web: www.legis.state.pa.us