John Baer: New auditor general is one pol who's worth watching

Posted: November 15, 2012

NORMALLY any column I write involving our state lawmakers includes phrases such as "greed-heads," "overperked," "morally bankrupt," "shortsighted" or "totally inept."

And the names of lawmakers appearing in such columns are almost always pols to watch out for.

This time I have one to just watch.

He's Rep. Eugene DePasquale, 41, a Democrat representing Republican York County.

He's a Pittsburgh native whose family runs a Squirrel Hill neighborhood bar, the Panther Hollow Inn, and whose paternal grandfather, Eugene "Jeep" DePasquale, was a colorful, outspoken member and later president of Pittsburgh City Council.

Last week, Rep. DePasquale was elected state auditor general due largely to President Obama's winning Pennsylvania, because who knows anything about the auditor general, let alone about Rep. DePasquale?

He's a graduate of the College of Wooster, where he played Division III football and baseball, has a master's in public administration from Pitt and a law degree from Widener.

Little-known statewide, from small-market GOP base, he was far from a shoo-in candidate.

And in the five statewide races - president, Senate, attorney general, treasurer and auditor general - swept by Democrats, he beat his opponent by the smallest percentage, 49.7 to 46.5.

He beat Pittsburgh Republican state Rep. John Maher, an accountant who ran under the catchy slogan a "CPA for PA."

How Republican is DePasquale's home York County?

Mitt Romney carried it by 21 points. DePasquale lost it by 15 points.

So it's fair to say that had Romney won the state, I wouldn't be writing about DePasquale.

Let me tell you why I am.

He was elected to the House in 2006, the year after the 2005 legislative pay grab.

He became the first lawmaker to put all his expenses online on his legislative website.

He leads the Legislature in least expenses charged to taxpayers.

He doesn't take per diems - payments of $163 to $185 a day, tax-free, no receipts required - which lawmakers can collect on top of salary if they actually show up to work.

His district office furniture was purchased at a yard sale: six chairs, a couple of desks, a wobbly table and what he calls "an ugly green couch out of the '60s."

And he was among those active in ending private car leases for lawmakers and pushing for passage of the state's 2009 right-to-know law. He's now pushing to end the law's exemption of state-related schools such as Penn State.

In short, his reform credentials in a state where reform is anathema are solid.

So with a Republican governor and a Republican Legislature, it'll be interesting to see what a reform-minded Democrat can do with the Office of Auditor General, the state's official independent watchdog.

This isn't to suggest that outgoing Democratic Auditor General Jack Wagner has been a slouch. He hasn't. He's aggressively promoted public-pension fixes, including consolidating municipal pensions, has repeatedly called for comprehensive legislation to address infrastructure and transportation deficiencies, and more.

But DePasquale comes to the job with a fresh set of eyes and a clear agenda.

He says his top priorities after taking office in January will be to order reviews of all water-protection programs to make sure Marcellus shale drilling doesn't harm public safety, dig into state job-creation programs "to see which work and which don't," and closely examine education funding in search of "wasteful spending."

Imagine, a Democrat who has saved tax dollars and wants to save more.

The office has a professional staff and subpoena power and therefore has potential to impact state policy.

This is why several past auditors general (both Bob Caseys, Don Bailey, Barbara Hafer and Wagner) ended up running for governor.

As mentioned, DePasquale has politics in his blood.

When I ask about this, he says, "If I'm fortunate enough to serve two terms, I'll be 49. I'll have to do something."

Which is why he's worth watching.




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