HARRISBURG - The Pennsylvania legislature's cash surplus fell slightly last year to just over $200 million, a sum that has attracted the attention of state officials struggling with a massive overall budget shortfall.
The Legislative Audit Advisory Commission reported yesterday that the General Assembly's "continuing appropriation" would have been larger if nearly $13 million had not been drained from it to fund a hazardous-sites cleanup law.
The commission also said General Assembly spending was $316 million last year, an increase of $8 million, or 2.5 percent, from 2006-07. The total cost to run the legislature included an additional $37 million in accounts-payable and other categories.
The surplus was $211 million when fiscal 2006-07 ended, and $161 million in 2004-05.
The commission's chairman, Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery), said the surplus should be only large enough to keep the institution running for a few months. He said the General Assembly should adopt a new policy to limit its size.
"Now, more than ever, we need to invest this money into the needs of Pennsylvanians," he said.
Defenders of the surplus say it would prevent the governor from exercising undue influence over the legislature during a budget stalemate. Nearly all other states, however, return their legislative surpluses to the general fund at year's end.
A spokesman for Gov. Rendell said the legislature should cut its spending because of the economic crisis and return more of the surplus to the treasury.
"I think that it's up to the legislature to decide how much of a cushion it needs," said Chuck Ardo, the Democratic governor's press secretary, "but I don't know that it needs a pillow."
Republican leaders in the state Senate earlier this month repeated their call for cutting the legislative reserves at least $75 million. They previously targeted that money for property-tax cuts, but caucus spokesman Erik Arneson said yesterday that the current economic conditions may warrant moving the money into the general fund instead.
In the Democratic-controlled House, a spokesman for Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne) said, "Nothing is off the table."
But Bob Caton said the new leadership team's study of operations will help determine how much of a cap - if any - should be placed on the surplus.