The Lead

Top Senate leader announces all expenses will be publicly available next month

By: and - August 11, 2021 5:27 pm

GOP Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, reacts to Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

All Senate expenses will be available online starting Sept. 1, the chamber’s top official announced Wednesday.

“Pennsylvanians deserve to know how their tax dollars are spent, so opening the Senate’s books to the public eye is absolutely the right thing to do,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in a statement. “The online transparency tool that is in development now will help fulfill the promise of state government that is more open and accountable to the people it serves.”

The new reporting system will include all office leases, per diems — flat rates lawmakers can claim when traveling more than 50 miles from their house for legislative purposes — reimbursements for meals and lodging, supplies, mileage, and office maintenance. The database will apply to all Senate offices, Republicans, Democrats, Independent, and institutional.

Corman said the reporting system serves as a step to build on existing measures to create government transparency, including the PennWATCH system, which includes information on employee pay, state spending, and revenues, and campaign finance reports from the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Before the change, journalists and the public had to file open records requests to view elected officials’ expenses.

After being sworn into his position as top leader of the Senate, Corman stressed the importance of increased transparency in state government, though he has declined to comment on other efforts to address money’s influence in politics, including legislation that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

A handful of lawmakers already have publicized their expenses online, including Sen. Lindsay Williams, D-Allegheny, who has been posting her own taxpayer-funded expenses since March 2020 after the Senate’s chief clerk redacted portions under legislative privilege without her consent. 

Now, Williams’ office expenses are compiled by staff and put in a searchable spreadsheet. They include everything from Harrisburg lodging for staff to coffee runs.

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She was happy to see Corman’s new policy but was holding out on judgment until she saw the format that expenses were shared. Williams also pushed for a vote on her legislation to make the policy change permanent, to mandate that the information be released in a searchable format, and that the state House also share its expenses with the public as well.

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, told the Capital-Star that the lower chamber would look into adopting a similar policy but didn’t offer a definitive answer.

“It’s something our leaders have been discussing, and our members will want to address when they return in the fall,” Straub said.

Ethics reforms and other good government measures have been areas of bipartisan interest in Harrisburg in recent months.

Just last month, a House Democratic lawmaker resigned from office due to allegations that she misused taxpayer-funded per diems payments.

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star.

Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.