At a time of great need, it’s time for the Legislature to liquidate its slush funds | Opinion

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By Eric Epstein

At a time of unprecedented financial pain in Pennsylvania,  the General Assembly should give back its $172.2 million  surplus to meet real human needs stemming from the  coronavirus pandemic.

The slush fund amounts to 32 percent of the Legislature’s current  budget. The “Statement of the Financial Affairs of the General Assembly” report was released in January, and identified 32 line items for which the surplus is greater than 100 percent of the current year’s  budget.

These accounts  don’t need any more money to get through  the next year. They should be zero-funded in the coming budget,  or the money should be re-appropriated for priority programs.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs and  their health insurance for themselves and their families. Tens  of thousands of children are unable to learn at home because  they lack electronics and connections to the internet.

Yet the General Assembly sits on a slush fund. To put the  $172.2 million surplus in perspective, the funds could pay for:

•215,250 top-of-the-line, newest edition iPad pros @ $800 each.
• 521,818 iPads @ $330 each.
• 1,148,000 Kids’ Edition Samsung Galaxy Tab A @ $150 each.

Among the line items that have a surplus greater than 100 percent of its budget is the Legislative Audit Advisory Commission.

The commission does not allow public input on how the Legislature spends its cash stash. Its surplus of $585,242 (210 percent) compares with this  year’s budget of $279,000. Even before this year’s appropriation, the commission had a surplus of $482,000 from previous years.

The worst offender among the major line items, is state House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, whose surplus was 480 percent of its budget including “contingent expenses.”

The House’s Special Leadership Account, managed by  the Majority Leader’s office, had a surplus of 471 percent of its budget.

Other major line item surpluses include:

  • 314 percent for senators’ “expenses” under the Chief Clerk’s Office.
  • 285 percent for the Special Leadership Account of House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny).
  • 234 percent for the House Democratic Appropriations Committee.

The Legislature, which gets an annual pay raise, can manage on a $360 million budget. Legislators should repeal their automatic pay raise, and use their reserves  funds to combat the  pandemic.

Eric Epstein, of Lower Paxton Twp., Dauphin County, is the founder of the government watchdog group Rock the Capital.