Pennsylvania’s budget is more than five months late, but that hasn’t stopped state government from spending taxpayer funds during the stalemate.
Three Republican state representatives released a report Thursday that indicated Pennsylvania spent $30.4 billion in state and federal funds from July through October, sometimes dipping into unused pots of money from as far back as 2005 to slog through the budget impasse.
While schools and nonprofits have struggled to survive as they await the release of funding, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has spent $600,000 on subscription services for departments and $500,000 on membership dues for state agencies, said state Rep. Seth Grove, a York County Republican who helped lead a two-month inquiry into state spending during the impasse.
“What we discovered in this report was the administration has used prior year funds without any oversight from the Legislature or transparency to the public to fund Harrisburg first,” Grove said.
Wolf’s office responded tersely to the report, but did not answer questions about specific findings included in it.
Instead, Wolf’s press secretary, Jeffrey Sheridan, referenced a November report from The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre that found lawmakers spent $243,000 in public funds for lodging and meals during the first 100 days of the budget stalemate.
“We are not going to be lectured by members of the Legislature who shroud themselves in secrecy to avoid the public from seeing how they spend money and conduct the people’s business,” Sheridan said.
State Reps. Cris Dush and Jim Christiana, both Republicans, joined Grove in crafting the report. They found that the administration used a waiver process to free $2.7 billion in unused funds allocated during previous budget years, with some money a decade old.
Past governors have used the procedure to keep money moving through Harrisburg, but the number of waivers that Wolf’s administration requested raises the question of whether the governor is using it as a “supplemental appropriation” during the budget standoff, the report stated.
Grove also said explanations for waivers were vague, relying on the argument they were for the health and safety of Pennsylvania or required under federal law, state court decisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
In addition, just $4 billion of the total spend number was posted on PennWATCH, an online tool that tracks government spending, according to the report. Wolf promised transparency during his campaign, but hasn’t lived up to the vow, said Christiana, who sponsored the legislation creating PennWatch.
“This isn’t a matter of ‘gotcha,’” Christiana said. “There should be just as many Democrats in the Legislature that are outraged by what’s going on.”
The Republicans released the report during the supposed home stretch of state budget negotiations. The tentative framework includes increased education funding, as well as some iteration of public pension reform and changes to the way the state sells alcohol.
Lawmakers are also considering lifting some sales tax exemptions and further taxing tobacco products. Christiana said it will be difficult to ask constituents to pay higher taxes given the administration’s spending that has occurred during the impasse.
The Legislature, though, has also spent money during the impasse, blowing through reserves that at last check stood at $53.7 million in the Senate and $72.9 million in the House.
“You criticize us for our legislative slush funds, and that’s legitimate,” said state Rep. Will Tallman, R-Adams. “(But) this is PB&J compared to the steak and smorgasbord that the governor has in his slush fund.”
The report offered 15 recommendations, including an audit of the administration’s waivers, more detailed waiver requests and giving every county, school district and nonprofit access to waiver dollars.
Wolf’s office dismissed it as more partisan hijinks.
“It is long past time to end the nonsense and partisan theatrics and pass a budget that includes historic increases to education and begins to fix the deficit,” Sheridan said.