Lawmakers report $43M increase in unspent cash reserves

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Pennsylvania legislative branch saw its budget reserve jump by nearly $43 million last year, with most of the additional surplus attributed to House and Senate accounts.

The Legislative Audit Advisory Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve the annual financial report for the legislative branch.

The commission said the legislative surplus was $138 million when the year ended in June. A year ago, the commission pegged the surplus at $95 million.

Details on the $355 million in total spending were posted online after the meeting. Payroll, at $286 million, is far and away the largest single cost.

“I think that instead of condemning us, you should praise us for not spending all the dollars,” the commission’s chairman, Rep. Mark Keller, told reporters.

The reserve, which reached $215 million in 2006, has been defended by lawmakers as a way to counteract executive branch power when budget stalemates occur.

Keller, R-Perry, said he would favor drawing it down.

“My way would be, spend all the dollars,” Keller said. “Let’s get rid of it.”

But he also said it was prudent to have some cash on hand to fund operations if needed.

Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, a commission member, said the report was “nothing to be ashamed of as far as I can see.”

Eric Epstein, a Democrat and longtime government reform advocate who lost a state House election in November for a Harrisburg area seat, called the audit’s approval “the same farcical dance we do every year.”

“It would be a better thing if the surplus ceased to exist,” said Epstein, who heckled the commission during the meeting about changes to the process he supports.

The surplus for the House grew from $36 million to $53 million, the Senate from $11 million to $27 million, and Legislative Data Processing from $24 million to $29 million.

Sen. Pat Browne, R- Lehigh, a certified public accountant and commission member, attributed more than half of the $43 million surplus to changed accounting rules that no longer require the General Assembly to factor in the cost of retirement benefits on an annual basis. Instead, he said, they have to be reported as an aggregate total.

The report said legislative pension obligations are currently $390 million, along with $1 billion in other post-employment benefits, nearly all of it health care. Legislative employees are currently sitting on $22.6 million in unused vacation, sick and personal leave.