Reserve account too fat

There ought to be a law limiting the amount of money in the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s reserve account – an account most Keystone State residents hadn’t even heard of 10 years ago.

The state is in serious financial straits, facing a 2014-15 shortfall of more than $1 billion.

Nevertheless, the two houses of the Legislature have more than $153 million stashed away, out of the reach of important needs and programs and unavailable to the current budget-preparation exercise.

The reserve fund grew by $13 million in 2013, while the state’s overall financial picture remained precarious.

Although the amount of money currently in the account is significantly less than it was at the time the fund became public knowledge nearly a decade ago, there’s no acceptable excuse for lawmakers to be hoarding that money – against the best interests of commonwealth taxpayers.

Voters should be clamoring for this abuse of the taxpayers’ well-being to end.

There probably are auditors who would argue that the account’s current total is lower than the legislative reserve that should be on hand. However, few state residents, having personally experienced the troubling economy of recent years and having witnessed Harrisburg’s dysfunctional performance – as well as illegal goings-on such as the Bonusgate scandal – sympathize with the General Assembly’s needs.

On the basis of all that’s been wrong with the Legislature, including its questionable performance thus far in crafting the 2014-15 spending plan, the two houses of the General Assembly don’t deserve to have any carryover surplus money from one year to the next.

Yet, from the Legislature’s standpoint, the justification for a reserve fund is logical. Reserve money is needed to protect the General Assembly in the event of a serious budget stalemate with the governor.

In 2009, the General Assembly dipped into the reserve money amid a 101-day budget impasse during which then-Gov. Ed Rendell line-item vetoed the Legislature’s funding.

Still, the important question remains:

How much reserve money should the General Assembly be legally allowed to keep on hand at the expense of everything else in the state government?

Voters should weigh that question and, during this legislative election year, voice their opinions to their incumbent representatives and senators – and others seeking their seats – prior to the Nov. 4 balloting.

The voters shouldn’t expect to see any significant release of the reserve money to the general fund between now and when the 2014-15 budget is finalized.

Thanks to the notorious 2005 middle-of-the-night legislative pay-raise vote; the 2001 pension grab benefiting lawmakers, other state workers and public school teachers, and illegal actions by a number of powerful lawmakers that landed some in prison, many Pennsylvania residents have lost confidence in their state government.

Meanwhile, the existence of the formerly under-the-radar legislative surplus account hasn’t boosted the Legislature’s standing with constituents.

The surplus and its size are issues that shouldn’t go away.

Proposals calling for a limit well below $100 million should be the starting point for discussion.