Online access to Pa. Senate spending remains, but a Democrat proposes expanded transparency

‘It’s important to build trust in the institution and your elected officials,’ Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, said

By: - March 5, 2023 6:30 am

State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny attends the Senate Education Committee Hearing held at the Pennsylvania Capitol on May 24, 2022 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

Online access to monthly Pennsylvania Senate expense reports will continue during the 2023-24 legislative session, giving the public a glimpse into how lawmakers in the upper chamber spend taxpayer money.

The process implemented by a now-former Republican Senate leader in September 2021 to post monthly expense reports for each member of the 50-seat chamber, the chief clerk, and the chamber secretary has continued under Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland.

Still, a Senate Democrat, who was among a handful of lawmakers to post expenses before the uniform approach, thinks there’s room to improve reporting on how lawmakers in both chambers spend millions of public dollars.

Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, has again proposed requiring that all legislative expenses, including both House and Senate lawmakers, be publicly posted online in an easily searchable format by each chamber’s chief clerk.

“It’s important to build trust in the institution and your elected officials,” Williams told the Capital-Star. “And I don’t think that constituents or journalists or anybody looking to find that information should have to file a Right-to-Know request to get access to how we spend your tax dollars.”

A previous version of the bill had support from Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, Timothy Kearney, D-Delaware, Amanda Cappelletti, D-Delaware, Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, Scott Hutchinson, R-Venango, and Judith Schwank, D-Berks.

The Senate is the only chamber in the General Assembly to publicize legislative spending. The monthly reports reflect spending on office leases and maintenance, reimbursements for meals, mileage, lodging, and per diems, which are flat rates lawmakers can claim when traveling more than 50 miles from their house for legislative reasons.

Before the change, journalists and the public had to file open records requests to view elected officials’ expenses.

After then-Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, announced that the Senate would post expenses online, House leadership expressed an interest in doing the same but never implemented it institutionally or through legislation.

Williams said the move was a “good first step” toward transparency but wished the resource was easier to find on the state Senate’s website. The reports are in the Right-to-Know section online, alongside links to PennWatch — a state website for government salaries — and contracts exceeding $5,000.

The format for the monthly Senate expense reports — uploaded as PDFs for each lawmaker — doesn’t simplify analysis or ease comparison for monthly spending, nor does it provide context or consolidated spending data from prior months, years, or from lawmaker to lawmaker.

If someone wanted to see how much money their representative spends on traveling to and from Harrisburg or lodging, they would have to go month-by-month and calculate the totals and create a system or database to track information for comparison.

Senate expense reports for January were posted on Wednesday. Lawmakers receive a copy of their expenses from the previous month before publication, usually around mid-month, to redact any personal information.

“I’m glad that there’s something there,” Williams said. “Now, I think there are some improvements that could be made to make it easier to navigate.”

In addition to her reintroduced legislation, Williams — alongside Muth — attempted to implement the change as part of a rules reform introduced at the beginning of the current session.

The reform package, which also included changes to operating and ethics rules, was referred to the Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee, which has yet to consider the proposal.

“It should be easy, publicly accessible in a searchable format that anybody if they want to look at something, if they see something or hear something, and they want to look it up, it should be very easy for them to do,” Williams said. “And I honestly don’t think that’s really a hard thing to do or hard question to ask.”

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