More than a third of Pennsylvania’s state representatives spend thousands of government dollars every year to stage senior expos, veterans dinners and other community events that some criticize as self-promotion at taxpayer expense.
Rep. Kurt Masser, R-Northumberland, spent $2,515 on food and other items for a September senior expo that assembled representatives of social service agencies, according to records filed with the House of Representatives chief clerk’s office.
State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, submitted $1,126 for food he served at senior fairs in Cresson and Northern Cambria in October.
And Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland, took more than 60 people to tea in August in celebration of couples who’ve been married for more than 50 years. She submitted the $303 cost of nine cakes and a caterer for reimbursement as a legislative expense, according to House records.
The costs of these events add up. Last year 76 representatives – more than a third of the 203-member House of Representatives – spent nearly $80,000 in legislative funds on Veterans Day dinners, family days, children’s fairs and outdoor expos, according to a review of the Legislature’s expense records.
Of that total, lawmakers spent $50,748 on events targeting seniors.
Details of the events and their costs were obtained under a Right-to-Know request filed with the House of Representatives. The Senate Right-to-Know office asked for an extension to respond to an identical request, as allowed by law.
Each lawmaker gets a $20,000 annual allowance for office expenses. They may use the money to stage community events as long as they show an “underlying legislative purpose,” said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for the House Republican caucus.
State representatives “are people’s closest contact to government,” Miskin said, and often where people turn for help finding state services.
Critics say the spending is self-promotional and unnecessary.
“If the Legislature can cut funding for books and bibs, then they can restrain themselves from spending money on duplicating services provided by the executive branch,” said Eric Epstein, coordinator of the activist organization Rock The Capital.
House-funded community events, he said, are a tool that incumbents use to deter challengers and win re-election.
“These events and expos are a part of coordinated program – used by both parties – to keep incumbents in power,” Epstein said. “Bottom line: Sitting politicians spend their time and your money campaigning, promoting and raising their profile to keep their low-performance, bad results, high-paying job.”
Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, who is unopposed Tuesday, is among the vast majority of representatives who don’t sponsor such events – or, at least, who don’t submit expenses for them.
“I’m a cheapskate when it comes to spending tax money,” said Roae. “Some legislators really overdo it with multiple taxpayer-funded events every year, especially election years. Some events are taxpayer-funded, ‘look-at-me’ events that focus on the legislator rather than the people.”
Like Roae, state Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union, said the events are an inappropriate use of government money.
“I love seniors and veterans. We all do,” said Keller. “But if I want to help the American Legion, I’ll go to their chicken dinner. I don’t need to put on my event. I don’t think buying food and snacks is a function of government.”
But lawmakers who hold the events say the expense is a useful way to help constituents.