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Posting lawmakers’ expenses online should be law

Why is everything the Pennsylvania General Assembly does so complicated and convoluted?

The state Senate admirably has been posting senators’ expenses online since September. But not in a searchable form. So you cannot, for example, type in search terms such as “restaurant” or “flight” to expedite your search. You cannot search for the total a senator has claimed in per diems, the flat-rate payments that lawmakers can claim – without submitting receipts – to cover food and lodging.

You have to check each month’s report of each senator’s expenses, line by line, to find the information you’re seeking.

A journalist built a searchable database, on his own, for The Caucus. The bloated, costly and clearly inefficient Legislature can’t figure out how to do this?

Moreover, there’s nothing on the General Assembly’s Senate homepage to direct you to the expense reports. There’s not even a link under a short menu of “Topics of Special Interest.”

The reports, updated monthly, can be found on the Senate’s Right-to-Know Law webpage (which itself is found on a drop-down menu on the Senate homepage).

As The Caucus reported in March, the reports “list the expenses for every senator and all employees under the chief clerk, providing the amount, the payee, the date, the person who authorized the spending and a brief description of every payment. The information includes district office leases, postage, mileage and meals incurred by every senator. It also includes spending on per diems.”

Meanwhile, it took the state House some time to get to the point of voting in favor of transparency. Good for House members for making it a unanimous vote when they finally managed it.

But the two chambers ought to be posting expenses in a uniform way, and in the easiest way for taxpayers to quickly access the information they seek.

Once again, we’d like to remind state lawmakers that they’re supposed to be working for their constituents. Things ought not to be done primarily for their own convenience and comfort level.

“For decades,” Brad Bumsted of The Caucus noted, “legislative expenses have been accessible to citizens and journalists only after filing Right-to-Know Law requests, which typically take up to 35 days to obtain information. In the past, both chambers required journalists seeking the information to copy them by hand.

“An investigative series by The Caucus and Spotlight PA last year detailed how hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money is spent to operate the Legislature. The news organizations’ stories also revealed the lack of transparency and oversight of this spending.”

The state Senate began posting all senators’ expenses online because Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre County, directed it to happen – not because of legislation.

Gillespie told Bumsted that he is not happy the Senate was removed from his bill. “We are equal chambers,” he said. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Poultry-related idioms aside, just how and why the Senate was deleted from Gillespie’s bill seems to be a bit of a mystery.

Gillespie said he was not aware of any agreement with the Senate to remove the Senate from the bill, Bumsted reported. And an aide told Bumsted that Corman’s office was not aware of any conversations between Senate and House leaders on the bill. (See what we mean? Few things are straightforward in Harrisburg.)

“Differences between the House and Senate’s computer systems were cited as one potential reason for excluding the Senate,” Bumsted noted.

That explanation didn’t fly with state Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny County, “who has sponsored a bill almost identical to Gillespie’s original legislation,” Bumsted reported. “Under her bill, expense data from both chambers would go to the Legislative Data Processing Center for publication on the internet.”

As Williams sees it – and we agree – posting lawmakers’ expenses online should be a matter of law and not subject to legislative leaders’ whims.

Williams told Bumsted that she was also concerned about new language in the House bill that gives the House chief clerk broad powers to delete information intended for the webpage. This concerns us, too. Before any such information is deleted, there ought to be strict guidelines in place for deletions, as well as disclosure requirements.

This all should be part of a uniform, accessible, easy-to-find, searchable reporting system.

As we wrote in March, “We shouldn’t have to file Right-to-Know requests to see how state House members are spending taxpayer dollars.”

And we should not need detective licenses to find out how our state senators are spending taxpayer money.

As Spotlight PA has reported, Gillespie’s bill would require not only that expense information be searchable, but that it “include the reason the expense was incurred, who incurred it, and which legislative account was used to provide the reimbursement.”

Real transparency isn’t about half-measures. It’s a guiding ethic and lawmakers ought to embrace it fully.

Unfortunately, in Harrisburg, nothing is that simple.

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