Total spending reached $392 million, up from $362 million the prior year and from $355 million in the 2017-18 year.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Pennsylvania Legislature’s spending grew by more than 8% last year, adding some $28 million to its own reserves as the state’s deficit ballooned and many residents struggled to pay bills during the pandemic.

The Legislative Audit Advisory Commission on Thursday voted without debate to approve the legislative branch’s spending report for the 2019-20 year that ended in June.

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Total spending reached $392 million, up from $362 million the prior year and from $355 million in the 2017-18 year. Payroll costs grew by about $29 million.

The largest category of legislative expenses, by far, was payroll and benefits, which cost slightly over $328 million, up from $299 million last year. Pennsylvania has among the largest legislative staffs in the country.

“The audit went through all the individual accounts and did tests on all the individual accounts and did not come up with any audit findings as far as inappropriate spending,” said the commission chairman, Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland.

Lawmakers boosted their own budgetary reserve from $172 million to just over $200 million. The reserve, which legislators have justified as a cushion against running out of money during a future budget impasse with the governor, was $95 million in 2016-17.

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It’s now approaching the record size of $215 million in 2006, the year after the ill-starred — and subsequently reversed — decision lawmakers made to boost their own base pay in amounts that ranged from 16% to 34%.

“The need for this reserve has never been more necessary than during the Wolf administration, which has not hesitated to hold the Legislature hostage in protracted budget impasses while seeking irresponsible policy changes during the appropriations process,” said House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman.

Messages were left seeking comment from the other Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.

The Independent Fiscal Office, a nonpartisan legislative agency, is projecting that the state government has a $2.5 billion operating deficit in the 2021-22 fiscal year, up from its deficit projection of $1 billion before the pandemic.

The Associated Press in May reported a review of invoices and more than 6,000 pages of spending line items by the legislative branch showed that lawmakers often use the latitude their own rules provide to decide what to buy and from whom.

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