When the advocacy and good governance group Truth in Accounting recently dinged more than half the U.S. states for failure to be transparent in how they calculate and communicate their debt, Pennsylvania did not escape taking a share of the criticism.
“The vast majority of [Pennsylvania’s debt is] pension and retiree health care benefits,” TIA’s CEO and founder, Sheila Weinberg, told Watchdog.org. “They've been balancing their budgets by not including all of that type of compensation cost in the calculations.”
When contacted about the implications of the TIA report, state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, offered what he sees as a way to address that particular criticism – a piece of legislation that he authored that has passed the House of Representatives and is awaiting action in the state Senate.
“Treasurer Torsella, when he came into office, started a transparency portal,” Grove told Watchdog.org. “It’s very good, has all the charts and graphs and stuff. So, good stuff for the media and the general public. He also has a lot of financial data on there.”
Grove specifically feels that Torsella’s site, as it already stands, is superior to the similar PennWATCH website set up by the state Office of Administration.
“It doesn't always work,” he said. “It's clunky. … It doesn't drill down as far as it should as far as where the money goes. Downloading it is problematic. … And since OA operates it, if you have a question on anything that agencies report, you have to do a right to know request back with the agency.”
He also said that OA doesn’t verify any of the information that it posts on PennWATCH. And once again, if any visitor to the site suspects that there are errors, they have to reach out to the individual agency that provided the data to the Office of Administration.”
“It’s a problem,” Grove said.
While he prefers Torsella’s site, Grove’s concern is that there’s nothing in state law that requires its continued operation, meaning some future state treasurer could abolish it on a whim. So HB1843 would require its continued existence, and also empower the treasurer to require that agencies submit their budget documents on an annual basis for inclusion. It also makes sure that agencies submit their data in a format that is easily readable by the treasurer’s staff.
“[Torsella] wants to build a one-stop shop so you can go as detailed as you want, and then click [on] the specific contract directing that spending as well, which would be phenomenal,” Grove said. “But he needed language to basically get agencies to send him information in format that he can use…. We codify it and give him the tools to build it out more to work with the individual agencies.”
Grove said that he was working with state Sen. Pat Browne, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to hopefully move the bill through that chamber this fall.
“So that should be moving,” he said. “Hopefully we can get that to the governor’s staff before we break this fall.”
To Weinberg, it’s vital that states work to improve fiscal transparency and help voters make better decisions come election time.
“If [these states] truly had balanced their budget, they would have had to increase taxes or cut services or benefits,” she said. “And you might have voted for somebody different if they did one of those two things. So this isn’t just a numbers game, and we really think it's causing cynicism and mistrust in our governments and not allowing citizens to knowledgeably participate in their government.”
State Rep. Pamela DeLissio, D-Philadelphia, while not speaking specifically about Grove’s legislation, echoed him when she was contacted about the TIA report in saying that improving the fiscal knowledge of taxpayers is one of her priorities as a lawmaker.
“I have conducted 77 town halls over the course of my four terms in the House and cover at some length, regularly, the budget process, the proposed budget and how it all works,” she told Watchdog.org. “Raising financial literacy of citizens, pertaining to the state government budget is key to helping them understand how their tax dollars are spent and to differentiate between the core responsibilities of government and other government programs and services that may not be core.”