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February 4, 2013

House district office leases top $3 million

HARRISBURG — The state spent almost $3 million on district office leases for members of the House of Representatives in 2012.

Documents obtained under the Right to Know law reveal that those costs don’t include the amount paid to operate the offices for those 203 members, and the general public has no easy means of monitoring the spending habits of lawmakers and their staffs because there is no organized, government-sponsored effort to report the information.

A handful, but growing number of lawmakers have taken matters into their own hands and begun posting their office expenses on their office Web sites.

Rep. Lynda-Schlegel, R-108, of Northumberland County, said she started posting her expenses online to demonstrate her commitment to transparency.

Such efforts may not go far enough, said Rep. Fred Keller, R-85, of Snyder County, who noted that the state has launched an open government Web site that is intended to be a resource to help the public learn how tax dollars are being spent. Expenses of lawmakers are not included on the Web site, called Pennwatch.

“We ought to be leaders on this,” Keller said.

Allowing the public to have easy access to information about government spending provides for more immediate accountability, he said.

“If someone wants to look at the expense report and ask why I bought more paper in a month, I ought to be able to tell them,” Keller said, adding that when he was a factory manager before he was elected, he received expense reports at the end of the month. Taxpayers deserve the same sort of access to information, he said.

Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-10, of Lawrence County, created online expense reports for his Web site about three years ago, a step he took while following the lead of former Rep. Eugene Depasquale who just took office as auditor general.

Gibbons said that he would certainly welcome any effort that would generate legislative spending reports for the public. He now creates those reports himself. It is an effort he believes is worthwhile, because it makes the information available to anyone interested, and because it compels him to directly examine the data to think about how he is managing the finances in his office.

Lawmakers were allocated $48,000 to run their offices in the two-year term of the just-ended 2011-12 session. That allocation included the cost of leases for office space and the costs of running those offices.

Expense documents show that even though rent prices may vary across the state, in rural districts any potential savings in the cost of leases are wiped out because lawmakers will have multiple offices to compensate for the geographic size of their districts.

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