'Integrity budget' boosted?
The $28.3 billion state budget bill rolled out last week by the House Republican majority emphasizes government transparency and accountability as one of the guideposts framing the tax-and-spend plan.
The bill, which faces action this week in the House Appropriations Committee, proposes funding increases for several watchdog agencies that serve as a check or monitor on the activities of state government.
These are the Office of Open Records, which determines whether a government document is a public record; the Auditor General's office, which audits state agencies and local governments for how they spend money and carry out their responsibilities, and the state Ethics Commission, which investigates complaints involving ethical misconduct on the part of public officials and decides what remedial or enforcement action to take.
The three agencies have experienced funding problems in recent years due to the tight state finances stemming from the recession. Capitol activist Tim Potts was the first to call attention during this period to the need for a fully funded "integrity budget."
The GOP budget bill proposes $1.6 million, which is $257,000, or 18.7 percent, above current funding levels for the open records office; $45 million, which is $2.6 million, or 6 percent, above current levels, for the auditor general, and $1.8 million, which is $100,000, or 5.7 percent, above current levels for the ethics commission.
The final budget bill won't emerge until month's end, following negotiations with Gov. Tom Corbett and the House and Senate, but having the proposed funding bump for the watchdog agencies at this early stage of the process is a good sign.
During the state budget hearings, Terry Mutchler, Office of Open Records executive director, and State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said funding issues involving their agencies are nearing a critical stage.
Mutchler warned that the office's seven attorneys were having trouble keeping up with an explosion in appeals cases involving open records decisions by agencies. They handled 2,188 appeals last year compared to 1,159 in OOR's first year.
The situation is more complicated at the auditor general's office, which furloughed 67 employees last week due to state funding shortfalls.
Of the $2.6 million proposed boost, $2 million is earmarked to upgrade computer systems and the remaining $600,000 is part of a 1.5 percent general spending boost.
It's too early to tell whether the extra $600,000 will reduce the number of furloughs, said DePasquale spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo. The $2 million for the computer upgrade is the first installment of a three-year project that will total $9 million.
The department's ability to conduct audits in a timely manner is hindered by computers that are between seven and 12 years old, prone to hard drive crashes and having limited data storage, DePasquale said.
Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley is urging property owners to check that yellow corrugated stainless steel tubing used with natural gas-fueled appliances, such as fireplaces and heaters, is properly bonded and grounded.
The National Association of Fire Marshals has determined that a fire risk exists from a potential arc if lightning strikes.
The yellow tubing installed in homes and buildings built or renovated between 1990 and 2007 may not have been bonded to current code. Some 400,000 homes in Pennsylvania fall in this category.
Property owners should contact a licensed electrical contractor to do a safety check and any necessary work, Cawley said.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)