Though a win for taxpayers, the information provided online is not searchable or easy to analyze.
Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Mike Wereschagin, Brad Bumsted, and Sam Janesch of The Caucus
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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania Senate for the first time is giving the public online access to the way the chamber and its elected members spend millions in taxpayer money on themselves.
Reports that show all 50 senators’ spending for the month of July were posted to the Senate’s website Wednesday morning, alongside spending information for the chief clerk and secretary. That information will be updated monthly going forward.
Though a first for the legislature, and a win for taxpayers, the information provided online still does not give the public the full picture of the chamber’s spending.
The reports often leave out key details, including where a lawmaker spent money and why, and the records weren’t uploaded in a way that allows the public to quickly and meaningfully search or analyze the spending.
Still, posting the expenses where the public has easy access to them is “long overdue,” said Russell Eshleman, head of the Department of Journalism at Penn State University.
Taxpayers “deserve to know how their money is being spent,” he said.
The Senate’s decision to post expenses online follows a year-long investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA into the legislature’s internal expenses. The journalists analyzed more than 400,000 transactions from 2017 through 2020, and found the country’s largest full-time legislature spent $203 million just to feed, house, transport, and provide district offices and perks for lawmakers and their staffs — above and beyond lawmakers’ $90,000 annual salaries.
Shortly after, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) announced plans to post the records online. House leaders have indicated an interest in doing something similar but have not announced a plan to do so.
Before Wednesday, the public was forced to go through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of filing public records requests for expense information. In the years before Pennsylvania enacted a stronger public records law, getting access to legislative expenses entailed physically visiting House and Senate offices with a pad and pen, and poring over paper records, said Eshleman, who made the trek on a monthly basis when he was Capitol bureau chief for The Philadelphia Inquirer more than three decades ago.
“I couldn’t make copies,” Eshleman said, only review the records.
The benefits of Corman’s decision to post the records extend beyond transparency, Eshleman said: “I think it will act as a deterrent to excessive spending.”
The information posted online includes spending on office leases, postage, mileage, and meals. It also includes spending on per diems, the flat-rate payment legislators can request — without having to provide actual receipts — to cover lodging and food when they travel more than 50 miles outside their district, including for voting sessions in the Capitol.
Still, there are limitations to what the Senate is making available to the public. For starters, it does not provide any historic spending data, including from earlier this year. If members of the public want to find out how much the chamber spent on per diems during the worst months of the pandemic, for instance, they will have to request the information in writing.
There is also no quick way to add up expenses for all or individual lawmakers for the month of July. Members of the public still need to create their own database for that, a time-consuming process that could be avoided if the chamber made the expenses public in a different format.
And though the information will be updated monthly going forward, it is unclear whether the information will be presented in a way that allows the public to easily compare expenses from one month to the next — let alone draw comparisons between individual lawmakers.
The reports also don’t provide the most complete picture of expenses. While brief descriptions are provided, individuals still have to file an open-records request for receipts or “vouchers” that offer more details.
Eric Epstein, cofounder of the good-government group Rock the Capital, said the website does not have the depth of data or ease-of-use for citizens like PennWatch, a state website for government salaries and other expenditures.
“This system is limited to recent expenses and does not disclose trends or allow the taxpayer to raise the curtain and examine vendors with pay-to-play connections,” said Epstein, a regular user of the state’s public records law.
The expenses made available Wednesday show that in July, the Senate’s spending included big-ticket, once-a-year expenses like a $248,000 payment for various Microsoft computer services and smaller payments like a $267 chair for a senator’s office and $496 on a technology contract for “monitoring the Dark Web.”
The latter expense was paid through the Senate’s chief clerk, and it is not clear whether the contract was for a specific senator or someone else.
In their investigation, The Caucus and Spotlight PA found that of the $203 million the legislature spent over four years on food, housing, transportation, office rentals, and expenses, $37 million was paid to cover lawmakers’ district office expenses, including rent; another $18 million was spent to cover travel by legislators and their staff; and $6 million went toward underwriting per diems for lawmakers themselves.
The investigation found some legislators claimed reimbursements over four years that topped $200,000, much of it in per diem claims. When lawmakers wrote the rules governing reimbursements, they decided not to require receipts from legislators, making those per diem payments, which can reach $200, essentially untraceable.
Their staffs, on the other hand, must provide documentation for reimbursements.
Before Wednesday, only 11 of 50 state senators and 18 of 203 state House members posted some level of financial information on their individual websites, according to The Caucus and Spotlight PA’s review in May. Those legislators still often presented limited or outdated information.
Corman’s web page, titled “It’s Your Money,” hadn’t been updated in over six years.
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