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Taxpayers Dole Out Cash for Lawmakers' Weekend Work

Pennsylvania lawmakers rack up $100K in weekend per diems.

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Contrary to popular belief, government sometimes runs on the weekends.

At least, it does in Pennsylvania, and taxpayers are picking up the tab for any related expenses.

An analysis of 2011 expense reports from the state House obtained through a Right-to-Know request shows that out of more than $1.3 million in per diem expenditures, more $102,000 went toward Saturdays and Sundays.

At rates set by the Internal Revenue Service, hovering around a tax-free $160 a day, per diems are available to lawmakers who live at least 50 miles from the Capitol.

Per diems for non-session days, when the House is not meeting for a vote, are paid at the same rate.

In 2011, a total of $54,386 went toward more than 360 per diem payments for 123 lawmakers on Saturday and Sundays for various reasons. Forty-three lawmakers were listed more than once.

Around $15,000 of that went to 115 House lawmakers for a session day on June 26, 2011 — the final Sunday before the fiscal year deadline.

An additional $47,942 in per diems covered Sunday night stays here prior to a session on Monday, as indicated on expense reports. Forty-eight lawmakers cited this practice at least once.

Findings included per diems taken by:

The weekend per diem expense is often a result of travel.

State Rep. Patrick Harkins, D-Erie, who collected $3,000 in 2011 for 19 weekend stays, travels more than 300 miles from his district to Harrisburg.

He said he makes the six-hour drive from Erie on Sunday nights, so he is present for the Monday morning committee meetings. He cited a recent instance where he — the legislator living farthest from the Capitol — was the only one who attended the hearing.

“I don’t abuse the system, and I don’t look kindly on the people who do,” he said.

Harkins said he does not think the per diem system needs to be reformed, but there should be repercussions for those who abuse it.

“If people get there and they don’t do the right thing, then vote them out, but put the pressure on them to do the right thing,” he said.

State Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Allegheny, said he stays overnight in Harrisburg before Monday morning meetings after serving more than 18 years in the Legislature. In 2011, he collected a little more than $3,000 for 19 weekend stays.

It’s 211 miles from his home to Harrisburg, he said, which takes three hours and 45 minutes.

“I just found it more beneficial to come in Sunday afternoons to get some work out the way and prepare myself so I can be in my office at 7:30 Monday morning doing business as opposed to traveling,” he said.

Lawmakers who collect per diems file expense reports with the House Chief Clerk’s Office. But obtaining the per diem doesn’t require showing any receipts, as the rate isn’t tied to expenses incurred.

Instead of collecting per diems, lawmakers can opt to be reimbursed for individual expenses, such as mileage, meals and lodging. Lawmakers only can pick one method of reimbursement.

State Rep. Dan Truitt, R-Chester, introduced legislation late this session to end the per diem practice and require all reimbursements to be line-item expenses, as is common practice in the private sector.

“From the number of right-to-know requests, it’s pretty apparent the press and the public are suspicious that legislators are taking home a lot more money in per diems than their actual costs are,” Truitt said.

Truitt says a train ticket from his district to Harrisburg is $32.80, for which he receives a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement instead of a per diem. A per diem would give him a profit of around $130 —that he’d get to pocket.

Truitt wraps up his first term this session, but he said he will re-introduce the legislation if elected to return in January.

He said he received support from 11 co-sponsors on the bill, and 10 on an accompanying resolution.

Remember, he’s soliciting the support of lawmakers who collect the per diems his bill would take away.

“It was a little better than I thought,” he said of the support. “I thought, ‘This is gonna go over like a lead balloon.”

But Truitt said he is hoping to mobilize the public to push for the reform. Already, per diems are criticized by government watchdogs and the public, as Pennsylvania’s state lawmakers are some of the highest paid in the country.

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania receive a salary of more than $82,000, with access to benefits and pensions. According to 2012 analysis from the National Conference of State Legislators, that’s the second-highest salary for legislators in the nation, as was the case in 2011.

Pennsylvania also has the largest full-time legislature in the county.

Eric Epstein, coordinator of Harrisburg-based government advocacy organization Rock The Capital and longtime Pennsylvania politics watcher, said he’s not holding his breath for a bill like Truitt’s to pass anytime soon.

“The Legislature is not adult enough to police its own ranks,” he said. “There has been a systematic abuse of per diems for decades. The executive branch doesn’t utilize them anywhere, why does the legislature think they’re above the law?”

marty smith October 13, 2012 at 09:17 PM
What the heck, the president gets paid for campaining too?
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mork October 14, 2012 at 12:17 PM
Why don't they treat their expenses like buisness men do.and deduct expenses from State and Federal income taxes.Or do they do Both?
Bob October 14, 2012 at 01:24 PM
A flat per diem is not the best method, i like the approach that is being introduce to reimburse for what you actually expensed. I think the bill proposed actually hurts the lawmakers since they can only get reimburse for one type of expense. Honestly if a lawmaker needed to travel and stay overnight, then 160 is actually too low to pay for hotel, travel, and food if they could expense everything (unless they have extremely low priced hotel deals). For comparison on my business, it allows different limits on breakfast, lunch, dinner...then certain criteria for type of hotels, and you need to try to book the least expensive transport (renting car, or driving self with gas reimbursement, flight, train, etc.)..all expenses are reimbursed based on actuals so you submit receipts as well). Also there is only a certain amount of travel allocated per year, which is figured out by planning trips the year before. With videoconferencing, travels have been significantly reduced and you truly need a big business case to travel somewhere now.
Donna Witkowski DiPietro October 14, 2012 at 05:05 PM
In business, as Bob mentioned, the use of videoconferencing has increased, and in my opinion, should be mandatory operating procedure for governmental meetings. The potential expense savings appear to be great and there would certainly be enormous time savings as well.
James Kephart Jr. October 15, 2012 at 09:08 PM
PA is a joke when compared to the rest of the country. Our state reps earn more and waste more than any other state or commonwealth in the country (per capita). They know it, but it takes them to change it and they never will and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Period. Imagine if you were asked to vote yourself a 50% pay cut. Half our reps should be wiped out and the rest should be part time jobs - some states pay their reps less than 20K per year and they get no beni's. PA is a joke! Then again, this country is being turned into a joke by both parties - so see if you can figure out a way to bilk the system because "everyone else is doing it".

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