Transparent Times

The Transparent Times is a monthly publication of the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee. The committee is chaired by Representative Daryl Metcalfe. 
Pennsylvania is one of several states to require by statute that certain meetings are to be open to the public. These laws are commonly referred to as “sunshine laws” and are critically important to ensuring that elected officials and bureaucrats are held accountable to the taxpayers. When meetings and deliberations are fully accessible by the public, government policies can be fully scrutinized and government officials are prevented from insulating themselves from the thoughts and concerns of taxpayers.
Prior to the General Assembly adopting a state budget, the House Appropriations Committee holds public hearings with the various state departments, agencies, boards and commissions. Members of the House State Government Committee were invited to participate in the Appropriations Committee’s budget hearings with the agencies the Committee oversees, including: the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS), Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS), Office of Open Records (OOR), Department of General Services (DGS) and the Department of State (DOS). The purpose of the hearings is for legislators to discuss fiscal and administrative issues with various state entities prior to the consideration of a new state budget. As Chairman of the House State Government Committee, Representative Daryl Metcalfe was invited to ask questions of the various agencies.
In order to provide elected officials and taxpayers with a better estimate of the public pension liabilities, the House State Government Committee recently considered House Bill 1471, sponsored by Representative John McGinnis. This legislation will require SERS and PSERS to present a mark-to-market balance sheet in their annual financial reports, which is an alternative accounting method used by the private sector. At the hearing, Representative McGinnis explained that his legislation “will not affect pension policies or payouts, but will provide taxpayers with a full understanding of the underfunding of the two systems.” He further argued that current calculation GASB 25 method is unrealistic because it does not properly value of investments and assumes assets will annually earn a 7.5 percent rate of return. Taxpayers’ future earnings are being used to underwrite the pension promises, and taxpayers deserve an honest and accurate accounting of this burden.
Historically, the argument for a sizeable legislature is rooted in the belief that smaller legislative districts and more legislators allow the public to have a closer relationship with their elected representatives. While this was a valid argument in the previous century, the invention of modern communication technology such as the internet, e-mail, cell phones, and social media has allowed concerned constituents to have almost immediate access to their elected officials. We are living in an age where technology has made it possible for individuals living in distant locations to be in constant communication with each other, which was not a reality when the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended in 1968 to allow for the 253 member General Assembly.
During the 2012 elections, numerous incidents of voter intimidation, illegal assistance, and electioneering within the polling place were reported, primarily in Philadelphia. Due to these reports, Chairman Metcalfe, two Committee members, and staff visited Philadelphia earlier this year to speak with local groups about what legislative actions are needed to prevent similar Election Code violations from occurring in the future. Throughout this legislative session, members of House of Representatives have introduced legislation to protect the integrity of elections. The House State Government Committee recently convened a public hearing to discuss legislation that focuses on solutions to improve the administration, oversight and integrity of the Pennsylvania’s election process.
There have been an alarming number of news reports recently regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) data collection and surveillance pro¬grams. According to these reports, the NSA has col¬lected and is collecting “metadata” or transactional information regarding telephone and Internet com¬munications. In fact, the Guardian published an ar¬ticle alleging that the NSA has been acquiring data for every phone call made or received by customers of Verizon Business Network Services. While intelli-gence is vitally important to the war on terror, these allegations, if true, indicate that the federal govern¬ment is routinely and unconstitutionally spying on U.S. citizens.
The House State Government Committee recent¬ly reported two bills that will amend the Pennsylva¬nia Constitution to reduce the size of the General Assembly.
Over the summer months, Chairman Metcalfe has been working to formulate an agenda for the fall legislative ses¬sion. Several important topics to be addressed during the coming months include:
The Right-to-Know Law (RTKL) is a landmark piece of legislation that provided taxpayers and residents of this Com¬monwealth the right to have access to the records of their state and local governments. Prior to the RTKL, citizens were required to prove that a record was open to the public before a record would be released.
The State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) have an estimated unfunded liability of over $47 billion dollars. This unfunded liability amounts to $9,000 per household in Pennsylvania. Unless reforms are made, funding the pension systems will require new sources of tax revenue, higher taxes, more borrowing or significant cuts to state and public school budgets. Considering the total amount of taxes that are already taken from hardworking Pennsylvanians, it is simply not an option to expect current and future generations of taxpayers to continue to fund these unsustainable pension systems.
The importance of local school board directors is often underestimated. The position of a school board director is not a benign elected office. School board directors are given the responsibility to establish policies within the school districts, as well as creating and adopting the school district budget. However, most importantly for taxpayers, school board directors have the authority and power to increase property taxes.
During the 2009-2010 Legislative Session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 2497 (Act 120 of 2010), which made several reforms to the Commonwealth’s public pension systems. These reforms are expected to provide some fiscal relief to the public pension systems and taxpayers over the next several decades. However, the Commonwealth’s public pension systems contin¬ue to experience an unfunded liability of over 42 billion dollars. The reforms of Act 120 are not enough to restore solvency to the public pension systems. The General Assembly needs to act now to further protect taxpayers from this ballooning and potentially devastating debt.
Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act of 1978 lists crimes that can cause a public official or public employ¬ee to lose his or her retirement benefit. Under this law, the crime must be related to the official’s public office or the employee’s public employment. However, this re¬quirement provides a loophole because a public official or public employee could continue to receive a taxpay¬er-funded retirement benefit after committing a violent crime, such as murder or rape.
Pennsylvania’s Procurement Code is the statute that outlines the process whereby state agencies purchase goods and services. Recently, the House State Government Committee passed legislation that will provide greater transparency and accountability to the procurement process.
When a customer is deciding whether to purchase a product or a service, the two major factors influencing this decision are quality and value. If a product or service is priced too high or does not meet customer expectations, the customer has the freedom to choose a different provider that is able to meet the customer’s needs at an acceptable price. This is common sense.