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The state General Assembly finished the most recent fiscal year with a surplus of more than $118 million in legislative accounts, and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale wants to take a look at those funds.

The state's top fiscal watchdog held a news conference Thursday urging leaders in the House and Senate to give his office permission to audit their fiscal operations.

Legislators are currently working to pass a budget that will need to close a projected deficit near $3 billion, and DePasquale said the legislative surplus — often referred to as a "slush fund" — shouldn't be off-limits as spending cuts to other agencies are suggested.

Comparatively, the state's $32 billion general fund includes about $245,000 in reserve funds.

A former state representative himself, DePasquale said he knows his request will face challenges, but he hopes the state's current financial situation will encourage lawmakers to be more transparent.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, said he would oppose allowing DePasquale's request to audit the General Assembly because they already contract an independent auditor.

Those audits, posted online by the Legislative Audit Advisory Committee, have been conducted the past two fiscal years by Boyer and Ritter, a Camp Hill-based accounting firm.

DePasquale said his office would be able to conduct a purely independent audit, though Grove pointed out the auditor general is a partisan elected official; DePasquale is a Democrat.

The Legislature needs reserve funds, Grove said, to continue operating independently during a budget impasse, including the nearly nine-month standoff that occurred during Gov. Tom Wolf's first year in office.

Rock the Capital, a nonpartisan voter education organization, argues the surplus is not needed, pointing out that the House Democratic Caucus was loaned money by the Treasury Department to cover expenses during the most recent impasse.

Grove said that loan was illegal, though Republican leadership chose not to file any complaints about the action.

Rock the Capital also recommends withholding  pay and health-care benefits from legislators, cabinet members and the governor until budgets are passed.

DePasquale said he understands the popular political opinion is to suggest eliminating the legislative surplus, but he doesn't agree with that. His office generally suggests schools hold reserve funds equaling 10 percent to 20 percent of yearly expenditures.

The issue, he said, is the lack of independent oversight in how the General Assembly currently uses its reserve funds. There is currently no cap on how much money can be set aside.

"There has never been an established set of rules and guidelines as to what the cost of maintaining the General Assembly should be," DePasquale said, adding that reserve funds should be set aside in a separate account to ensure it's only used during budget stalemates.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.

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