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May 17, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

Proposed budget cuts neuter internal watchdogs

Senate ups open records funding
 
By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
 
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget for next year puts Pennsylvania's internal watchdogs on a shorter leash.

Take the Department of the Auditor General, for example. Corbett’s proposed 2012-13 budget decreases the department's funding by more than $2 million, the latest in a series of cutbacks. In 2008, the budget was at a seven-year high of $54.4 million — next year, it’s proposed at $42.3 million.
 
While budget talks are still in the works, the Senate's version of the budget keeps the department's funding flat. 
 
Auditor General Jack Wagner is concerned. He’s seen his staff decrease from 755 to 600 since 2005, and a corresponding decrease of 10 percent to 15 percent in the number of annual audits.
 
 
It’s his department, Wagner said, that can help save money in the long run by spotting inefficiencies. Audits can pinpoint long-term savings, like a recent bi-annual audit of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board that found the agency wasn’t awarding contracts in a public manner.
 
“It would not have been corrected without our audit,” Wagner said.
 
For a state that’s graded poorly for instances of corruption and has seen a number of its public officials incarcerated over the fraudulent use of taxpayer dollars, Pennsylvania’s proposed spending plan may not shore up the safeguards as well as some would hope.
 
Just this week former House Speaker Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, was sentenced to prison after a jury found him guilty on corruption charges earlier this year. And state Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny, will be sentenced after being found guilty on 14 charges, including theft of services and ethics violations.
 
But next year's budget shows little sign of increasing transparency initiatives.
 
The State Ethics Commission, charged with enforcing the Ethics Act, which governs public officials conduct, is funded at $1.768 million this year with a proposed $1.68 million next year, a figure that’s unchanged in the Senate’s version of the budget.
 
Lobbying disclosure efforts funded through the Department of State, which include publicizing spending statements of firms and lobbyists, could receive $562,000 in 2012-13, down from $687,000 this year.
 
The Office of Open Records, created to uphold the Right-to-Know law and handle records request appeals, would receive flat funding at $1.174 million. But in a show of support for the 4-year-old office’s ever-growing operation, the Senate’s budget allocates $1.35 million.
 
That’s a figure that Executive Director Terry Mutchler said she can work with.
 
Already the work load has increased. In 2011, the office handled 1,772 appeals — up from 1,259 in 2010 — in addition to hundreds more from state court systems. The figure could continue to rise, with legislators considering a bill that would expand the office’s review to include state college records.
 
“The number keeps growing, and for us to be able to hire additional staff, to me that’s really critical for our operation,” Mutchler said.
 
The governor’s office holds that it’s asking these pillars of government the same that it’s asking of all — the motto of millennial-era politics of “do more with less.”
 
All departments are charged with finding efficiencies, said Eric Shirk, spokesman with the governor’s office. Additionally, the Department of the Auditor General and the State Ethics Commission, Shirk said, failed to freeze or decrease spending when asked to over the winter, to the administration’s knowledge.
 
“We have to take a bigger look with this budget,” Shirk said. “What we’re looking to do is keep the spending in order.”
 
Tim Potts, co-founder of government accountability advocacy group Democracy Rising PA, said he believes the state has the money to better fund its system of checks and balances.
 
He points to about $120 million more in expected revenue after the close of the 2010-2011 fiscal year, publicized after a release of a legislative audit conducted by independent auditing firm Ernst and Young
 
Increased attention to internal spending could alleviate the costs of prosecution of public officials later, Potts said.
 
“If we have agencies that were able to investigate more thoroughly than they can, it would send the message, ‘You can’t get away with this stuff. Don’t even try,’” Potts said. “But we don’t send that message, because we underfund these agencies so badly.”
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