Republican lawmaker to auditor general: Row offices shouldn’t be ‘press conference tools’

    Auditor General Eugene DePasquale testifies before the House Appropriations Committee. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

    During a budget hearing Wednesday afternoon, Pennsylvania’s auditor general was asked about state pensions, untested rape kits, and an audit of river basin commissions.

    But something beyond the commonwealth’s finances was on the mind of one House Appropriations Committee member.

    Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, told Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, that he appreciated many of the audits, but added that some of the auditor general’s work made him think, “Gene is way out of his lane here.”

    “I just want to make sure we’re not setting a precedent that row offices are used as press conference tools,” Topper said.

    DePasquale responded that his job isn’t just to point out problems with the state’s finances, but to make recommendations, too.

    In the past year, that’s included an examination of how Pennsylvania can reduce firearms deaths and a full-throated backing of marijuana legalization. In July, the Auditor General’s office released an estimate that legalizing and taxing marijuana would bring in $581 million in new revenue annually.

    DePasquale’s long touted the potential financial windfall from legalizing marijuana statewide, but said Wednesday decriminalization would also be good for the commonwealth’s finances.

    Philadelphia alone has saved $4 million from decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot, DePasquale said. Across the state, the savings could be as high as $15 million.

    DePasquale was questioned by Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, who plans to introduce a bill that would “downgrade the possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a summary offense.”

    READ MORE: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman offers ‘safe space’ for opinions on legalizing marijuana

    As auditor general, DePasquale and his office are tasked with keeping an eye on the commonwealth’s finances, primarily through audits. Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, asked DePasquale if his team has enough funding to conduct audits requested by state lawmakers.

    “We are a people-powered entity,” DePasquale said. With an additional $1 million, his office could hire 10 more people and do an additional three high-priority audits for the Legislature.

    The Auditor General’s office received $42.9 million from the non-earmarked general fund for the current fiscal year. Gov. Tom Wolf is requesting $43.96 million for the coming fiscal year, a 2.47 percent increase.

    Rep. Leanne Krueger, D-Delaware, asked for an update on untested rape kits. A 2016 report from the Auditor General’s office found more than 3,000 kits were waiting for testing, while 1,852 had been backlogged for more than a year.

    Today, just under 1,000 kits are waiting for testing, DePasquale said, and 90 percent of police departments of complying with state law. It would cost about $1 to $1.5 million to get that number to zero, save for the sexual assault survivors who decline to move forward with their case.

    Lawmakers also pressed DePasquale on state workers’ pensions (they’re in better shape than in 2006, but still could be healthier) and drug costs for Medicaid patients (something that needs to be looked into).

    Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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