Pennsylvania Treasurer Candidates Spar Over Unclaimed Property Issue

Charlotte Keith of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — An obscure policy issue is getting new attention in this year’s race for Pennsylvania treasurer as Democratic state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro of Erie seeks to draw a contrast with Republican incumbent Stacy Garrity.

Bizzarro is attacking Garrity’s track record on the issue she says is one of her top priorities as state treasurer: reuniting Pennsylvanians with their misplaced money.

Pennsylvania holds more than $4.5 billion in unclaimed property — money from inactive bank accounts, uncashed checks, and unused gift cards that, by law, must be turned over to the state. The original owners, however, never lose their right to file a claim with the state Treasury to get their money back.

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Since taking office in 2021, Garrity has overseen a major upgrade, begun under her predecessor, Democrat Joe Torsella, to process claims more quickly through automatic data-matching. Last year, two-thirds of claims were paid through this fast-track system. The state Treasury has also started paying out some claims via direct deposit instead of only by paper checks. Garrity says she mentions unclaimed property in every speech she gives to urge listeners to search the state’s public database to check whether they are owed money.

Garrity says these efforts have paid off: In the 2023 fiscal year, the state Treasury returned almost $274 million, a record.

Bizzarro thinks this figure is “deliberately misleading” because it doesn’t reflect the new unclaimed property Pennsylvania receives each year. As a percentage of the money taken in, the amount returned looks less impressive, Bizzarro argues, working out to a return rate in 2021 and 2022 of 43%, slightly lower than the state’s 10-year average.

The return rate figure is included in a national survey done by a trade association for unclaimed property. Of the 33 states that responded, Pennsylvania ranked in the top quarter, among a group of states with an average return rate of 58.78% between fiscal years 2018 and 2022.

The current system for returning unclaimed property puts the burden on the roughly one in 10 Pennsylvanians who are owed money. State law requires owners to file a claim with the Treasury before they can be paid. Many, however, likely do not realize they are owed money in the first place.

Garrity’s efforts to address this have been stymied by state House Democrats, including Bizzarro.

Last year, she proposed legislation that would allow the state Treasury to proactively return some unclaimed property without requiring owners to file a claim. The change would have applied only to property worth less than $5,000 that belongs to a single owner who is still alive; for more complex or higher-value cases, people would still have to file claims. Roughly a dozen other states, including Illinois and Wisconsin, have similar laws.

The bill passed the state Senate unanimously last June. But in the state House, Democrats used their one-vote majority to slash the amount of money that could be automatically returned from $5,000 to $100. Bizzarro voted in support of the amendment.

The automatic return provision was also included in a budget-enabling bill that came before a state House committee last October. Bizzarro voted for an amendment, which passed along party lines, to remove the language about unclaimed property, among other changes. A spokesperson for House Democrats said the language was removed as part of budget negotiations.

In a statement, Bizzarro called Garrity’s proposal “a minimal effort that did not go anywhere near far enough.” He has proposed legislation that would require unclaimed property worth up to $10,000 to be automatically returned to businesses and nonprofits, as well as individuals, whose contact information the state treasury can verify.

“If he wanted to make it higher, why did he vote to cut it?” Garrity said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Erin McClelland, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, said there was little to criticize about Garrity’s handling of unclaimed property. “My criticism is the overarching politicization of the office,” she said. Returning unclaimed property is an “easy sell,” McClelland said, that “doesn’t take a lot of thought or really aggressive analysis on a complex system.”

Bizzarro has framed his campaign as “a battle to stop the spread of extremism,” highlighted Garrity’s opposition to abortion and support for former president Donald Trump, and suggested she should be barred from running for office for casting doubt on the integrity of the 2020 election.

At a rally in Harrisburg on Jan. 5, 2021, Garrity said “the election from this November is tarnished forever,” because of the way the administration of former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Supreme Court interpreted Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law.

Bizzarro has said Garrity “used her platform to promote and spread lies that instigated the January 6 attack on our democracy.” Garrity told Spotlight PA claims she tried to overturn the election are “outright untrue” and that she has never denied that Joe Biden is the president.

Although the prospect of giving Pennsylvanians their missing money back might seem appealing to voters, unclaimed property “isn’t really a winning campaign issue for anyone,” said Mike Connolly, who served as a spokesperson for former Treasurer Joe Torsella. “It’s pretty much impossible to form any distinct difference as a candidate on these issues — everyone wants to return money.”

He argued the deciding factor in the race will likely be the presidential election. “It’s very much tied to performance relative to the top of the ticket, more than any association with an archaic policy issue.”

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