Upcoming Grove bill to improve budget transparency: Does it go far enough?

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Rep. Seth Grove discusses Gov. Tom Wolf's answer to application for special relief during an interview at his office in West Manchester Township, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016.

State Rep. Seth Grove has announced he will soon be introducing legislation to improve the administration and state departments' budgetary transparency — but one watchdog is demanding the Legislature follow suit.

The Dover Township Republican drafted a legislative memo Tuesday, Jan. 15, announcing his plans to re-introduce legislation from last session to expand public access to budget information and more.

The legislation overwhelmingly passed the House 178-12 last session, but after being amended and passed in the Senate, the House Rules Committee did not move it onto the floor before the session ended.

"This bill will make us the most transparent government in the nation," Grove said. "People should know where their money is being spent. The more eyes, the better off (we are)."

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What the bill entails: If passed, the legislation would make three important changes to how the government keeps the public informed with budget-related information, Grove said.

First, the bill would codify work done by Treasurer Joe Torsella on the Transparency Portal, which highlights budget information such as total expenditures, debt and general fund cash balance.

By codifying the program, it would provide more resources for the treasury and integrate information similar to what's provided by PennWatch, a government-run program that provides more in-depth budget analysis, down to employee salaries and more.

The new manner of displaying the state's financial status would be accompanied by a list of the 20 largest cost drivers and 10 agencies that receive the most appropriations.

The bill also would require state agencies to publish their original budget documents online by Nov. 1 each year — they currently don't have to do so but usually end up posting such information the following May, Grove said.

Finally, the bill would grant the public access to real-time expenditures and revenue of the commonwealth, which is currently used by appropriations committee members via software from SAP, an international accounting technology company.

The information is more accurate and up to date than the Transparency Portal, as it provides real-time information without the day-or-so lag found in the portal, Grove said.

A 'good start': Eric Epstein, a government-transparency advocate and co-founder of the nonprofit watchdog organization Rock The Capital, said the move is a good start but questioned why Grove's desire for transparency doesn't seem to apply to the Legislature.

"This is a good first step, but it only works if the Legislature is also open and transparent," Epstein said. "The problem is you need two wings to fly; this formula only works if legislators are held to the same standards."

Epstein argued the General Assembly has been a strong proponent of demanding better transparency and accountability of the administration and state departments, but it has yet to do the same reflection on itself.

Specifically, the appropriations committees — Grove has been a member of the House committee since 2013 — would be smart to "do business in the daylight," as most appropriations decisions are made behind closed doors, he said.

The Legislature also should be inclined to better vet bills and put an end to "copy and paste legislation" to further improve their own accountability, he said.

A good example of the Legislature holding the administration to higher standards than itself, Epstein added, is the recent creation of the House Government Oversight Committee.

New oversight committee: Before the 2019 legislative session began, Grove worked with House leadership to include a measure creating an administration-oriented watchdog committee in its biannual house rules.

Grove unsuccessfully proposed last session to create such a committee in both chambers — but the House earlier this month passed the measure 142-58 without public input.

The committee is meant to provide checks and balances between the Legislature and administration through subpoena and investigative powers able to be used on the governor's office, row offices and more.

Although the Legislature already had subpoena powers thanks to an 1843 law, House rules previously limited that power to the appropriations and the ethics committees.

However, the primary function of the committee will be to get information such as appropriations-related documents that Grove said have been historically difficult to get from both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The U.S Congress and some states already have such committees, but the move prompted skepticism among Democratic party leadership and the Wolf administration in suspicion of partisan play.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.