Just spinning their wheels?

Posted: March 20, 2011

HARRISBURG - The state's looming deficit hasn't kept Pennsylvania legislators from tapping taxpayers' money to get their exercise, exercise their patriotism, or sharpen their image.

In January, records show, the General Assembly forked over $5,192 for two state-of-the-art exercise bikes - one upright, one recumbent - for the Capitol gym that's reserved for legislators and staff.

They also shelled out $130,000 for almost 7,000 U.S. and Pennsylvania flags in the past year. The flags - anywhere from 3 by 5 feet to 5 by 8 feet - were used for events or given to residents in legislative districts.

And tens of thousands of dollars went to public relations firms - though all four legislative caucuses (Senate Republicans and Democrats, House D's and R's) have press aides on the state payroll making anywhere from $30,000 to just over $100,000.

For their part, legislative leaders say they have slimmed their budgets in recent years, scaling back staff benefits and other expenses.

Critics see the recent spending examples as more proof of what they've been shouting for years: that the legislature is out of touch with the times.

"Legislators keep asking Pennsylvanians to demonstrate self-restraint and embrace sacrifice because of the state's budget problems," said Eric Epstein, founder of the activist group RocktheCapital.com. "Yet they continue to partake in self-serving spending."

Since last fall, officials have been projecting a $4 billion deficit in the state budget. That's why Gov. Corbett is proposing cuts galore, with school and college aid taking the biggest hits.

In December, even as Corbett's transition team was sharpening its pencils, the legislature ordered the new bikes, both in the Precor brand family, equipment usually seen in private gyms or fitness centers.

The upright bike cost $2,476; the recumbent one, $2,716. Tony Barbush, chief House clerk, said the cost would be split between the Senate and the House.

The bikes went to a gym that's tucked behind double doors in the Capitol's east wing. The carpeted room with mirrored walls has treadmills, weights, locker rooms, and a flat-screen TV.

The facility was begun in the 1990s to encourage a healthy lifestyle - though there are two gyms (including a YMCA with a new workout room overlooking the Susquehanna River) a short walk from the statehouse.

But not everyone can use the Capitol gym. The sign on the double doors says, "Authorized Personnel Only." That means legislators and their staff.

Barbush called it "a no-frills fitness room." He said the last new equipment was bought in 2007. The new bikes replace models so old "they were probably unsafe," he said. He would know - he works out there.

Generally, he said, the legislature looks to buy used equipment, but could not find anything this time that fit the bill.

Are the new bikes "essential to the function of passing legislation? I would be hard-pressed to make that argument. Do I think it's beneficial? Yes."

The same might be said of the flags. In 2010, House members spent $121,885 on 6,436 flags. The Senate: $8,690 for 450 flags.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House's Republican majority, said members mostly donate flags to school classes, veterans groups, and other nonprofits in home districts.

Did the leadership ever consider striking this expense?

"We've said each and every appropriation this year needs to be analyzed and looked at very closely, and that includes each and every appropriation for the legislature," Miskin said. He said the House GOP has cut costs via staff pay freezes, limits on travel, and other measures.

"We're trying to save money wherever we can," he said.

His caucus even hired an outside consultant last year on a 12-week, $22,500 contract to help find ways to "reduce the cost of government" and "improve overall governmental efficiency and effectiveness." The contract was not renewed.

The state Senate, too, is no stranger to consultants. Two Philadelphia Democratic members spent $125,500 on public relations in the last year.

If Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams' "brand" is more consistent lately, that might be because he hired a city firm at $85 an hour, for up to $50,000, to handle "media management." Its contract also calls for "developing tactics for brand consistency, cohesiveness, and stronger identification to audiences."

At one point last year, Sen. LeAnna Washington had three firms doing publicity for her, for a total of $75,500, records show.

Both senators - Washington in an interview, Williams through a spokesman - said hiring outside firms saves money.

"If I have one specific person on my staff doing that work, they have a salary, they get travel reimbursements, you have to pay them benefits. It's cheaper this way," Washington said. She said the firms helped with events such as an annual walk to end domestic violence.

The sums Pennsylvania legislators control and spend have long been a bone of contention. Last May, the grand jury investigating the so-called Bonusgate scandal said the legislature lived in a "time warp," and was bloated, overstaffed - and overdue for reforms.

Last week, the grand jury's foreman said he wasn't holding his breath awaiting improvements. Jerry Sterner said: "Unless the public gets up in arms and really starts pushing, I don't know whether it will ever happen."


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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