Pennsylvanians should demand lawmakers turn their slush fund into a true reserve account for a rainy day.
A just-released audit of the legislative reserve fund reveals the balance in the account will be about $120 million after $62 million earmarked for use in the current budget is subtracted. At the end of the last fiscal year, the balance was about $184 million.
That's a lot of our tax dollars, even though the total is lower than in the past. The balance was $210 million in 2007. The money is controlled exclusively by legislative leaders.
Lawmakers argue that the General Assembly needs a reserve to fund operations in the event of a budget disagreement with the governor. Without the money, a governor could figuratively starve legislative operations by withholding money for their salaries, offices and operations.
Having the reserve fund provides a balance of power.
This is a legitimate point. Three years ago, the Legislature used $87 million out of its reserve funds during a 101-day budget impasse with Gov. Ed Rendell.
The trouble is those reserve funds are used even without a budget crisis.
During the audit for the 2010-11 fiscal year, auditors Ernst & Young LLP found that reserve funds were used to reimburse the full tuition for a legislative employee and that a "drink here and there" was paid for but not reimbursed by the members.
Those might not be major expenses, but these expenditures make it appear that legislative leaders see the reserve funds as more of a slush fund than a rainy day account.
It's time for that to change
If the intent is to protect the General Assembly in the event of a budget stalemate, then prohibit use of any of the money except under those conditions.
Then most of the money could be invested in a variety of relatively safe securities of varying lengths - certificates of deposits, bonds, treasury bills, etc. - that could generate interest (however small given current rates) for taxpayers.
The House and Senate also could pass rules that money in the reserve accounts could not be spent without a public vote of the chamber, instead of at the private discretion of the leaders. That would add more accountability.
Because it would be virtually impossible to get the General Assembly to give up its reserve fund, the best course for taxpayers would be to strengthen the oversight and strictly limit the use of the money so we are not on the hook for reimbursing tuition payments or buying alcohol.
It's time to turn the current fund with little control and oversight into a legitimate rainy day account in case of a budget stalemate.
If it's not a slush fund, those provisions shouldn't be a problem for our elected officials.