The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 2, 2013

JOHN FINNERTY | Lawmakers’ per diems exceed actual expenses

John Finnerty

— The other day we had a story about per diems, the reimbursement payments that most lawmakers claim for their housing and meals rather than submitting receipts for repayment of their actual expenses.

Naturally, doing that reporting makes all reasonable people consider whether one might easily go online and search hotel rates to compare them to the $152 per diems. But, as an annoying insurance advertisement frequently reminds us, you can’t really believe everything on the Internet.

But documents obtained by filing a right-to-know request?

That’s gospel.

So, today we learn that a handful of lawmakers take the time to submit their actual expense receipts to get reimbursed for the cost of their housing and meals. And, lo and behold, we didn’t encounter a single case where the actual cost exceeded the per diem rate.

For instance, when Rep. Lynda Schlegel-Culver, R-Northumberland, stays in Harrisburg, something that typically only occurs when there are going to evening budget sessions or there is foul weather, the hotel cost $98, which she submitted on her expense sheet for reimbursement. Culver said that the hotel is not particularly fancy, but she is mainly concerned about having a place that is clean, safe and secure.

Barring any surprises, the framework of Gov. Tom Corbett’s transportation plan, expected to be released Tuesday, as part of his budget address, is already known.

The Corbett administration has told lawmakers that the governor would like to lift the cap on a wholesale oil company franchise tax. The tax is levied on the wholesale price of gas, but is capped based on a cost of $1.25 a gallon, even though the state’s last calculation of the wholesale price of gasoline put it at $3.11 a gallon.

Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, said he had been told that lifting that cap would lead to a 20 cents-a-gallon increase at the pump. Considering the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association, an advocacy group, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Wednesday that they estimate the cap will translate into a 28.5 cent a gallon increase to gas companies, Haluska seems pretty close.

All in all, the governor has projected that lifting that cap will generate almost $2 billion in additional revenue for transportation.

There are other little things that could be part of the transportation strategy that could loom large in the future.

For one, Sen. John Wozniak,

D-Westmont, and Sen. Elder Vogel,

R-Beaver, have been pushing to get the state’s requirements for vehicle inspections and auto emissions testing relaxed. Wozniak said that when the transportation plan gets rolled out, he has every intention of continuing to fight to get the inspection and emissions testing issues included in the negotiations.

That would be good news for motorists in the state’s metropolitan areas who have been paying an extra $20 so the state can confirm that their vehicles are not polluting, even though fewer than 2.5 percent of tested vehicles fail. And Wozniak’s bid to eliminate vehicle inspections for new cars and trucks would be good news for motorists across the commonwealth.

Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, said that he hopes the governor finds

room in the transportation plan to expand the use of public-private partnerships for highway and bridge construction.

That would be significant in central Pennsylvania, where advocates have been fighting for decades to get a bypass built around a busy section of routes 11 and 15.

A public-private partnership might be a way to get the $600 million project off the drawing board, Yaw said.

When he asks people if they would pay a toll if it meant getting the project completed, Yaw said they are almost unanimous in their support.

John Finnerty covers Harrisburg for CNHI News Service.

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