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State Roundup: Even During Time Off, Lawmakers Can Get Paid

It's a Wrap: The week that was in the Keystone State.

By PA Independent Staff

HARRISBURG – Lawmakers took the week off, but will return for three more days of session beginning on Monday — the final three days before the legislative agendas are wiped clean in January.

But even those times when they don’t seem to be doing much work in Harrisburg, per diem reports show some lawmakers are lining their pockets, legally, with funds intended to cover expenses like travel and meals.

Meanwhile, there will be a bit of a wrinkle in the major parties’ election plans in Pennsylvania, as both Libertarian and Green party candidates have been granted access to the ballot.

Lawmakers collect more than $100K in weekend per diems

A PA Independent review of 2011 expense reports from the House of Representatives shows lawmakers racked more than $102,000 in per diem payments for weekend days.

Per diems are payments remitted to lawmakers regardless of their actual expenses meant to cover work-related costs like travel, food, lodging and mileage.

The practice often is criticized, to the point that incoming lawmakers like freshman Rep. Dan Truitt, R-Chester, introduced legislation to ban per diems altogether.

Not all lawmakers take per diems. Instead, they can be reimbursed for line-item expenses, much like in the private sector. Those, too, can add up.

In 2011, dozens of state House lawmakers were reimbursed for more than 3,600 parking and toll transactions.

The price tag was more than $111,000.

At least 450 of those reimbursements were directly related to more than $9,800 in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, according to expense records. But the exact amount of turnpike toll reimbursements could be higher — around $60,200 was not specifically categorized and listed under “Parking and Tolls.” Per the state constitution, mileage is a legal part of compensation.

Sandusky sentenced, state moves to revoke pension

Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison this week, in what amounts to a life sentence for the 68-year-old fallen former Penn State University assistant football coach.

Once that happened, the State Employee Retirement System sent a letter to Sandusky notifying him that his pension was revoked in accordance with Act 140, which governs public pension forfeitures, as first reported by The Associated Press.

Under Pennsylvania law, public pension forfeiture only applies to certain crimes relating to public corruption, or certain crimes committed by school employees against a student.

Sandusky was charged in November with 52 counts of sexual abuse of minors. In June, a jury found him guilty on 45 of 48 counts after four of the charges were dropped.

Sandusky’s lawyers told The Associated Press this week that SERS does not have legal ground to take the pension, as the victims in the case were not students at Penn State University, where Sandusky was employed.

Should Sandusky’s legal counsel appeal, the SERS Board will hear the case first. From there, it goes to the state court system.

State House challenger files ethics complaint against incumbent

A state House race in southeastern Pennsylvania is heating up with allegations of the misuse taxpayer-funded grants.

Challenger Jay Schiliro, mayor of Marcus Hook in Delaware County, filed an ethics complaint alleging that longtime state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-Delaware, directed tax dollars to a church for which he serves as pastor.

Schiliro filed the compliant with the State Ethics Commission this week. It accuses Kirkland of using taxpayer-funded grants to benefit nonprofits and community organizations with which he and his family have a personal connection.  Among the organizations to have benefited from the state’s largess in recent years is the church in Chester, where Kirkland serves as pastor.

Schiliro, a Republican, is trying to unseat Kirkland in the 159th state House District in November. Kirkland has held the seat since 1993.

In a letter to the State Ethics Commission, Schiliro detailed a “variety of questionable activity related to nonprofit and other organizations funded with hundreds of thousands in state tax dollars,” including two grants that went to a church that employs Kirkland.

Libertarian Gary Johnson secures place on ballot

The Libertarian candidate for president, Gary Johnson, will be on the ballot on Nov. 6.

The decision comes after a court battle brought by the state’s Republican Party of Pennsylvania challenging the validity of signatures on the petitions needed to get on the ballot.

Commonwealth Court Judge James Gardner Colins determined that Johnson had collected 20,730 valid signatures, just above the threshold of 20,601 signature required by state law for third parties to get on the ballot.

Third parties have long decried Pennsylvania’s petitioning process to get on the ballot gives advantages to the two major parties.

Turnpike CEO steps down

Roger Nutt, CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, resigned on Tuesday.

His stepping down comes at a time when the turnpike’s debt is a growing concern for lawmakers and government officials, and when the state Attorney General’s office is probing for abuse.

Nutt was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011 to head the government agency that directs the 450-mile toll-road system. He came out of retirement to accept the position and said in a brief statement he was resigning to return to retirement.

Nutt, 72, told fellow members of the commission he felt fatigued, stressed and was unable to perform at the level expected.

“I have decided that, for my long-term health, it is best I resign at this time,” Nutt said in a statement.

He is the father of Corbett’s longtime adviser and former campaign manager Brian Nutt. As the turnpike’s CEO,Roger Nutt made a salary of $196,000.

Taxpayers cover lawmakers turnpike, parking expenses

As Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls continue to rise, lawmakers won’t necessarily feel the same pinch, because taxpayers cover that expense.

Much like workers in the private sector, lawmakers get reimbursed for mileage and other expenses from work-related travel. In 2011, dozens of state House lawmakers were reimbursed for more than 3,600 parking and toll transactions.

The price tag was more than $111,000.

At least 450 of those reimbursements were directly related to more than $9,800 in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, according to expense records. But the exact amount of turnpike toll reimbursements could be higher — around $60,200 was not specifically categorized and listed under “Parking and Tolls.” Per the state constitution, mileage is a legal part of compensation.

The Legislature approved Act 44 in 2007, which is now being roundly criticized for causing five consecutive years of toll increases.  But some wonder if lawmakers can be serious about reforming that law since they do not have to face the increased costs of using the highway.

Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for breaking news and updates.

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