Taxpayers foot bill to supply legislators, army of aides

Regional News
Tom Wolf

FILE – In this Feb. 5, 2019, file photo, the dome caps the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. It takes hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to maintain what is one of the country’s largest legislative staffs, a small army with a voracious appetite for food, shelter, transportation, office supplies and computer equipment. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — It takes hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars a year for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to maintain one of the country’s largest legislative staffs, a small army that needs food, shelter, transportation, office supplies and modern electronics.

An Associated Press review of invoices and more than 6,000 pages of spending line items by the state’s legislative branch last year found lawmakers often use the latitude their own rules provide to decide what to buy and from whom.

There are limits: Expenditures must somehow relate to legislative business, and each member has an annual spending cap. The Senate does some group purchasing, including for office supplies.

Lawmakers spent public money to flavor their office water, buy fancy furniture, have locks changed and reserve choice parking spots.

They purchased a teach-yourself-Spanish program, $374; rented a zoo for a community event, $1,500; bought fastnachts, a Mardi Gras doughnut, $23; ordered a personalized tablecloth, $260; and picked up some individually wrapped muffins to pass out to commuters at a train station, $80.

One state representative dinged taxpayers for a $1.08 container of hairspray so she could kill flies.

They went through a vast amount of food and drink, often for community events or for groups visiting the Capitol, with costs that sometimes ran in the hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

To decorate their own offices, lawmakers can order up government-paid custom framing, sometimes to display pictures of themselves. The AP review found about half the 203-member House ordered framing last year.

During his final week in office in November 2018, before he retired after 26 years, state Rep. Bill Keller went on a framing spree, including five photos of himself on the House floor and two of himself holding what were described in the invoice as Pennsylvania trophies.

When questioned about it, Keller, a Philadelphia Democrat, immediately said he would repay the money, and a House official said a $2,200 check arrived Friday.

Lawmakers’ names are plastered on their Capitol office doors and on the district office buildings found throughout the state.

The Legislature spent more than $50,000 on signs in 2018-19. The costs varied widely, as did the type of sign — from a humble door marker to a large outdoor display with the legislator’s name illuminated.

Rep. Steve Malagari, a Democrat from Lansdale, hired a sign business on his block to fabricate a main exterior sign, a brushed aluminum “suite marker,” a vinyl sign for the front window and a 2-foot-by-3-foot sandwich board to catch pedestrians. The cost was nearly $1,300.

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