Bringing the Shadow Budget into Public Light

Governor Tom Wolf’s $34.146 billion state budget plan would grow state spending by nearly 3 percent over last year’s total, marking an increase of nearly a billion dollars in new spending. Unfortunately, even that total doesn’t show taxpayers the entire picture.

Many programs and services are not counted as part of the budget, masking the true size and scope of your state government. This approach creates a shadow budget consisting of billions of taxpayer dollars funded through “special funds” – or tax dollars that are put in separate accounts outside of the state’s General Fund.

Last year, the Independent Fiscal Office issued a report on 44 specific special funds that showed over $9 billion sitting (not spent) in these accounts. That is almost one-third of our state budget! Is this money being invested? Are we earning interest? What is the accountability for these tax dollars?

The problem is, a lot of the state budget is not accounted for in a transparent fashion. This is wrong, and it needs to change.

The idea of using “special funds” to pay for government programs, spending, and debt payments is not new, nor was it started by Governor Wolf. More than two centuries ago, President Thomas Jefferson warned of the potential that public dollars could be shuffled around to the point of becoming indecipherable to anyone besides the sharpest of government accountants.

Sadly, the situation that President Jefferson feared has come to pass in Pennsylvania. In 2019, the state continues to shield your hard-earned tax dollars from public light.

In next year’s budget, over $100 million is proposed to be shuffled from the General Appropriations budget into special accounts, like PlanCon school construction reimbursement, Growing Greener, Farm Show lease and other programs.

The complexity of that state budget process is going to be a main topic of my line of questioning as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. This week is the first of three weeks of public hearings on the state budget. The committee will hold over 30 separate public hearings with state agencies and departments to get to the bottom of how your tax dollars are spent.

Even when that process is completed, taxpayers will still not have a clear picture of how every dollar they send to Harrisburg is being put to use in our communities. The process is too hopelessly complex to be cleared up over the course of three weeks.

I had one Manchester Township resident recently ask me about a $1.65 per month tax he noticed on his cell phone bill that goes to the 911 Fund. His simple request: make it easier to follow the money so he can see how his tax dollars are spent. I agree! 

No one is saying that the programs these tax dollars pay for is not worthy. We are saying: let’s bring it into public light.

This week we celebrated Presidents’ Day. I think we need to heed the words of President Jefferson in light of our budget challenges:

“If to this can be added a simplification of the form of accounts in the treasury department, and in the organization of its officers, so as to bring everything to a single center, we might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress, and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.”

Let’s work together as Republicans and Democrats to bring our financial accounting system into an area where the average taxpayer can see exactly where their state tax dollars go. The hardworking residents of our great state deserve nothing less.

In the spirt of transparency, I encourage you to tune into these public hearings on the state budget on my website at and on my Facebook Page at over the next few weeks.

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