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Pennsylvania Senate plans first step to enhance public access to expense information

Brad Bumsted and Sam Janesch of The Caucus
The state Senate and House together spend on average $50 million per year, not including generous salaries and benefits.

HARRISBURG — For the first time, millions of taxpayer dollars that Pennsylvania’s state senators and their staffs spend on travel, meals, per diems and other expenses will be posted online for easier and faster public viewing, The Caucus has learned.

The change in how the Senate publicizes expenses, which are expected to become available online starting in September, follows a series of stories by The Caucus and Spotlight PA about the lack of transparency and access to many of the legislature’s spending records.

The records will be posted on a new webpage run by the Senate chief clerk, the chamber’s record-keeper and administrator for both the Republican and Democratic caucuses.

It’s unclear if the records will appear in an easily searchable, user-friendly database or in a different format, such as nonsearchable documents that are more difficult to use.

The state Senate and House together spend on average $50 million per year, not including generous salaries and benefits. The House has indicated an interest in posting similar information, but nothing has been decided.

“Our leaders will take a close look at the Senate’s system and work with our members on potential changes when we return to session this fall,” said Mike Straub, spokesperson for House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, is leading the Republican-controlled Senate’s effort to post the records.

“Pennsylvanians deserve to know how their tax dollars are spent, so opening the Senate’s books to the public eye is absolutely the right thing to do,” Corman said in a statement last week. “The online transparency tool that is in development now will help fulfill the promise of state government that is more open and accountable to the people it serves.”

On his own legislative website, Corman has offered limited information about his personal office-related expenses. Before The Caucus and Spotlight PA reported about it in May, the website hadn’t been updated in six years, even as it boasted about transparency.

His current salary of $141,019 — the highest of all legislators — was listed on his website as only amounting to $123,644.82. The monthly rent for his two district offices also was listed at amounts lower than they are currently set. And other expenses he’d racked up in recent years — $32,423 for vehicle lease payments, another $13,285 for gas and $345 for car washes — were completely absent.

His website was subsequently updated along with other Republican senators whose online expense pages were also outdated.

Since some lawmakers began voluntarily posting their expenses back in 2007, very few have kept up with the practice even as technology has made it far easier to do so.

Only 18 lawmakers in the 203-member House and 11 in the 50-member Senate posted some level of financial information as of early May. Those legislators often under-reported expenses or presented incomplete or outdated information, The Caucus and Spotlight PA reported. A comparison between their websites and a database that the news organizations created using public records requests showed some legislators had omitted expenses ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

“I’m happy to see these steps by the chief clerk,” said Sen. Lindsey Williams, a Pittsburgh Democrat and one of the few legislators who already posts detailed information about her expenses.

Williams said the Senate’s move is “a really good first step,” but she still wants to have the process cemented in law to make sure it’s a change that sticks.

She announced a bill this spring that would require the chief clerk to post all Senate expenses. According to the text of the bill released earlier this week, it would require those posts to be released quarterly and specifically in a format that viewers could search by name, office, date, and account.

The format is important, she said in an interview. On her own legislative website, her staff uploads PDF-format copies of her expense reports that include detailed descriptions. But they also manually input the expenses into a searchable spreadsheet, allowing viewers to easily search for topics like mileage or meals and then add up the totals.

Donetta D’Innocenzo, the Senate chief clerk who Corman has worked with to develop the new transparency process, did not respond to requests for comment.

“The fact that they are doing anything at all is great,” Williams said.

“It’s been a long time coming,” she said. “It should not have been this difficult.”

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