Pa. auditor general’s budget cut: ‘He’s obviously getting under somebody’s skin,’ an analyst says

  • Jan Murphy/PennLive

State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale made it official earlier this month that he was running for Congress but state lawmakers say they picked up on his desire to advance his political career long before that announcement.

DePasquale’s frequent press conferences both in Harrisburg and around the state, the flurry of news releases, and his forays into policy areas that go beyond the traditional responsibilities of the auditor general’s office made him one of the most visible state officials around.

The uptick in those activities since DePasquale’s re-election in 2016 raised a red flag for some lawmakers. To some, the state’s fiscal watchdog had his eye on something beyond keeping watch over how state tax dollars are being spent.

That led them to believe the auditor general’s office, with a budget last year of $40 million, must have money to spare. So they cut the auditor general’s funding by 10 percent, to $36.5 million.

In the enacted 2019-20 state budget which had enough money leftover to make a $317 million deposit into the commonwealth’s Rainy Day Fund, it was a different story for the appropriation given to the other two statewide row offices. The attorney general’s office got an increase while the treasurer received a much smaller cut than the auditor general.

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, speaks after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivered his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said the decision to cut the auditor general’s office’s funding so deeply drew no objections from Republican or Democratic lawmakers.

“Most people, Republican and Democrat, agreed that apparently he’s got too many resources that he is out there getting involved in areas that don’t come under the purview of the auditor general so he could withstand a reduction in his budget,” he said.

“We feel the amount of money appropriated in the budget will cover the costs of what the auditor general should be doing,” said Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford County.

“We’re hoping that this budget will bring into line – and maybe bring into focus for anybody who has that job – this is what the job is. This is what you are asked to do and this is what we think it should cost,” added Topper.

At a House budget hearing earlier this year, Topper engaged in a hard line of questioning of DePasquale about his penchant for veering into policy areas after other GOP representatives more gently touched on in their exchanges with the auditor general.

The funding cut to the auditor general’s office, along with a $3.2 million cut two years ago, leaves its budget smaller than it was in 1996, said office spokesman Gary Miller.

Its staffing stands today at 440 employees to perform the 5,000 audits the office conducts annually. That is 113 fewer people than the office had when DePasquale first took office in 2013.

DePasquale, who is in the third year of his second and final four-year term as auditor general, declined to be interviewed about the budget cut.

However, Miller said, “the auditor general is reviewing options to address this significant budget cut, which came as a surprise given the importance of our department’s work as well as the state’s large year-end budget surplus.”

Despite the office’s higher personnel costs including two contractually obligated pay raises for unionized employees in this fiscal year, Miller said, “Auditor General DePasquale remains committed to being an effective fiscal watchdog for the taxpayers of Pennsylvania and nothing will stop him and his dedicated team.”

At the House budget hearing, DePasquale told lawmakers adding $1 million to his budget would allow him to hire 10 more staffers to help complete the more complex, time-consuming performance audits that legislators request his office to perform. Since 2017 alone, Miller said the office has received 34 audit requests from legislators, which are in addition to the thousands of routine audits of school districts, municipal pension systems, volunteer firefighters’ relief association that the office is mandated to undertake.

Gov. Tom Wolf favored full funding for the auditor general’s office in the negotiated budget that he signed into law on June 28.

The General Assembly “thought differently,” said J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s spokesman. “We are in communication with the auditor general and will do what we can to support his operations.”

Since DePasquale took office, the auditor general has identified $1.05 billion in misspent or potentially recoverable state funds, Miller said. That is in addition to other problems he has highlighted that include inadequate staffing at Childline, the state’s child abuse reporting hotline; the backlog of untested rape evidence kits; and an ongoing “real-time audit” of the Harrisburg School District, among others.

While arguably public funds are impacted in some way with all those programs as well as others DePasquale has chosen to issue reports on such as reducing gun violence and addressing climate change, lawmakers believe he goes to far afield of his office’s mission.

Corman cited examples for what he views as work outside the auditor general’s jurisdiction. He pointed to DePasquale’s advocacy for marijuana legalization, his critical comments about a transportation funding law that the auditor general voted for when he was a member of the state House; and a review of detainees’ treatment at a federally leased residential center in Berks County, “and you could keep going down the list.”

“It was just obvious he spends a lot of time trying to get his name in the public to make a name for himself for future political considerations,” Corman said. “If he has that much extra time on his hands, then his department could use less resources.”

Topper hit on that point during the budget hearing.

“There are times when I see these reports and listen to press conferences and see releases and think that’s exactly what the Office of Auditor General should be doing and it’s working,” Topper said. “Then there are times when I think, ‘Man, Gene is way out of his lane there.’”

Dan Gleiter / PennLive

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale file photo taken June 12, 2015.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party also has been critical of DePasquale’s use of his office in the run up to DePasquale’s announcement of his plans to try to unseat four-term Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry in the 10th Congressional District in 2020.

“DePasquale has been a fraud and a failure as auditor general, holding himself out as an independent fiscal watchdog, all the while jet-setting across Pennsylvania while expensing taxpayers for nearly $100,000 as he used his official office to boost his personal political profile in advance of this congressional announcement,” said party spokesman Jason Gottesman.

At the House budget hearing in response to Topper’s questioning about the areas that the auditor general chooses to investigate, DePasquale admits a lot of them are judgment calls. He acknowledged he doesn’t get to make policy but he does use his office’s bully pulpit to recommend it.

Considering that when he ran for the office in 2012 and 2016 that is what he told voters he would do, DePasquale said, “I view that as a part of the mandate. If it was just to check the money, I’m not sure [but] I think we would just have a state accountant.”

Topper replied, “I think that is actually what we would want in this elective position.”

“I think some people may want it,” DePasquale responded. “But let me tell you I won two elections on promises of something different.”

Earlier this week, Topper said his greatest fear is seeing the statewide row offices become hyper-politicized and used to advance political careers or agendas instead of the work of the people. But Philadelphia public relations executive Larry Ceisler, who used to work on Democratic campaigns, said every politician can be accused of that.

Further, he said, “Everybody who sits in a row office wants to be a governor or a senator. It’s not a secret. It’s really hard to get some play and to be taken seriously on a policy and political level if you have to stay within the right four corners of what you think the job is supposed to be.”

Still, Ceisler thinks that what this deep budget cut conveys is that DePasquale is being effective.

“He’s probably taken his position and used his staff to prove policy points that the Republicans and others might not like,” Ceisler said. “If they thought he was a gadfly, I don’t think they would bother.”

There are those like Topper who without a moment’s hesitation said he firmly believed DePasquale’s handling of his office has to do with his political aspirations, but Ceisler said that’s no reason to penalize him with a budget cut.

“That’s pretty harsh. That’s a pretty harsh cut,” he said. “I think he obviously is getting under somebody’s skin and when he’s running for Congress, he’ll point out that he was punished for being effective.”

 

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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