The soft corruption of Harrisburg's slush fund
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The New York Times ranked the 50 state governments by levels of corruption and, with Pennsylvania ranked only 13th worst, some of us seek a recount.
Here's the problem. As Wall Street has dramatically demonstrated, some of what is legal may also be corrupt. Our guys in Harrisburg may not be as showy as some of their governmental peers across the nation, willing to sell appointments to the U.S. Senate and so on. But we manage to get an extraordinary number of public officials fitted for handcuffs nonetheless.
Pennsylvania finished fourth among states in number of local, state and federal officials convicted in federal public corruption cases. So the Times survey last Sunday of statehouse reporters -- which found Rhode Island, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Delaware as the most corrupt -- almost certainly sold us short.
And, as I said, just tallying corruption convictions is too narrow a view. Take Harrisburg's favorite legislative slush fund. Please.
This is billed as the Legislature's rainy-day kitty, but with $237 million set aside, it's big enough to withstand about eight monsoons. The scandal is not just the size of this purse, it's that it's perfectly legal for our legislative leaders to set aside so much for their own pet projects when parts of the state are, quite literally, crumbling.
If there is one good thing about a global recession, it's that it focuses the mind of angry citizens. With the old guard in Harrisburg either gone or humbled, we may finally see the beginnings of true reform.
Freeing up to $180 million from this fund and putting it back in the general fund should be just the start.
Rep. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat from suburban Philadelphia, can see the change coming. He has just been elected to his third term in Harrisburg and chairs the Legislative Audit Advisory Committee. That's designed to be a watchdog but, about 10 months ago, when Mr. Shapiro asked leaders to come up with a plan to draw down this surplus, he was rebuffed.
Now, he says, the leaders of both parties in both houses are committed to releasing the money. The only question is how much. Mr. Shapiro says when you take out what's already committed in state contracts, the true legislative surplus, built up over many years, is around $200 million.
He thinks the state could send $170 million to $180 million back to the general fund. That should still leave enough contingency money for the Legislature to draw on and function in the event this or any other fiscal year ends with a budget standoff.
But, again, why should it take a fiscal crisis for such action to occur? Why should the Legislature have the right to raise its own kitty to unconscionable heights?
Mr. Shapiro and others are drafting legislation to limit this surplus so it can't ever go above a certain percentage of the entire legislative budget. He hasn't yet decided on a number, but if, say, the surplus went above 5 percent or 10 percent, the money would automatically go back into the general fund.
It's the people's money, not the lawmakers'. That should be Premise One as our representatives seek to squeeze more from the dollars we send them, because we can't afford to send as many as we once did.
In 2007, the House Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform looked at reducing the size of America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature and decided, nah. Its report is set up to explain why a smaller statehouse won't actually save money, which is a crock, but even this report acknowledges that the only state to spend more money on its legislature is California, and it spends just under 4 percent more with three times the population.
You might ask your state rep why that is. You might also ask if he or she backs Mr. Shapiro's proposals to shave 10 percent of the legislative budget (about $31.6 million this year) and slash the number of TV studios in the capitol from four to one.
Yes, that's right. Each party in each house has its own TV studio. Isn't that precious?
"We may need four different communications people,'' Mr. Shapiro said. "We don't need four different cameras, four different studios ... [and] a photocopying machine doesn't care whether I'm a Democrat or a Republican.''
Word-splitters may care to call this something other than corruption. But the Pennsylvania General Assembly has to decide how to balance a budget with much less money. Before it cuts anything, it must cut itself.
First Published December 21, 2008 12:00 am