The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

April 4, 2014

Money for nothing? Pa. lawmakers need to document expenses

JOHNSTOWN — The movement to turn our state Legislature into part-time status may have picked up some unintentional support.

A report by CNHI State Reporter John Finnerty for last Saturday’s editions took a look at the $2 million in undocumented expenses submitted by our lawmakers. Some of our leaders accepted set, per diem reimbursements for five days of work when, in fact, they were only in session for three of those days. Other lawmakers pocketed travel expense payments for meetings held statewide that they attended throughout the year.

The money grab apparently stuck in the craw of state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, who wrote legislation that would make it mandatory for politicians to show their receipts before they could recoup their travel costs.

“There have been too many media reports questioning the integrity of the state’s unvouchered, per-diem system of reimbursement,” Vulakovich said. “It’s time we end this practice and make the system more accountable.”

Hear, hear.

But not so fast, said Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer.

Longietti, vice chairman of the House Democratic Policy Committee, said he attends hearings on policy issues that are held at various locations across the state.

“That’s how I do the job,” Longietti said. “My constituents want their voices heard. I’m at the table.”

Last year, for example, Longietti said he was traveling between 150 and 200 days. He submitted unvouchered expenses totaling $28,039. And that was on top of his $82,012 yearly base pay.

Of Pennsylvania’s 203 state representatives, just 42 submitted vouchers for expenses and only 11 did not claim any travel costs at all. In the other chamber, only 20 senators provided receipts for their expenses and just one did not ask for any reimbursement.

Our local representatives were not shy in seeking undocumented expense reimbursements. Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, submitted expense claims totaling $20,615 for 2013. Rep. Bryan  Barbin, D-Johnstown, claimed $12,680, and Gary Haluska, D-Patton, claimed $9,898. State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, submitted claims for $12,798 in unvouchered expenses.

Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock the Capital, an activist group, said the public believes that state government should require proper documentation for expense payments, much the same way that businesses operate.

“Nobody gets reimbursed if they don’t get documentation,” Epstein said.

What business would reimburse any of its employees for expenses incurred without the employee first providing a receipt documenting the expense? It’s unfathomable to us that lawmakers can conceivably pull a number out of thin air and say, “This is what I spent on travel and lodging.”

Pennsylvania’s lawmakers have the second-highest pay in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, members of the House were in session for only 81 days last year, working six more days than did members in the Senate, Finnerty reported.

And the state assembly has the third-highest reimbursement rate for undocumented meal and lodging expenses in the nation.

Is it any wonder that lawmakers are loathed by many residents?

We believe it’s time to derail the gravy train. In our opinion, being at your desk for only 81 working days a year amounts to part-time employment.

It’s time our leaders wake up and listen to their constituents. The noise for a part-time Legislature is growing louder.

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