By RANDY GRIFFITH
Sen. John Wozniak spends a lot of time in Harrisburg.
The Westmont Democrat collected $37,826 for food and lodging from January 2008 through October 2009, more than any other state senator.
The “per diem” reimbursement, which is paid in addition to the senator’s $78,314.66 annual salary, represents 244 days in the capital on legislative business, according to data compiled by the chief clerk of the Senate.
“That is a lot of days,” Democracy Rising Pennsylvania co-founder Tim Potts said.
The nonprofit government reform group requested the data and compiled a report comparing senators.
Wozniak’s total was $6,673 more than his nearest competitor, Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, the report said.
Democracy Rising does not begrudge Wozniak and other senators adequate reimbursement for expenses, Potts said.
The problem is: Pennsylvania law does not require senators to provide receipts. Members may collect the Internal Revenue Service’s maximum allowance for every day they are away from their home districts. Currently, that is $158 a day.
Because lawmakers often share Harrisburg apartments with colleagues and get free meals from lobbyists, Potts said, their actual expenses can be far less than the IRS maximum.
“You ought not charge people for expenses that you are not really incurring,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a second tax-free salary.”
Wozniak said he was surprised to learn his per diems totaled more than his colleagues, but defended his additional time in Harrisburg.
“The budget deliberations of the last two years have been extensive and intensive and have required constant vigilance from rural lawmakers,” Wozniak said. “I am involved in budget matters, especially those issues relating to non-preferred appropriations, job creation and education while I represent a sprawling, rural district that has many needs. This requires me to be in Harrisburg to ensure that our region receives its fair share."
Although Democrats control both houses, most come from the big-city areas of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Wozniak said. It’s important for him to keep rural issues in the mix.
“Rural Democrats are a lost breed,” Wozniak said.
And per diem reimbursements are acceptable under current law, he added.
The current practice allowed 41 senators included in the report to collect an average of $18,895 during the report’s 22-month period.
Several of those lawmakers were not in office for the entire period.
Sen. Richard Kasunic, a Democrat who represents most of Somerset County, collected $26,878, and Sen. Donald White, an Indiana Republican, collected $15,170.
“I am going by the rules of engagement,” Wozniak said. “I make sure all my i’s are dotted and my t’s are crossed.”
The rules should be changed, Potts insists.
Senators should be required to document actual expenses, he said.
“Our position is, simply, if you have legitimate expenses, turn in your receipts,” Potts said. “Legislators expect everyone else to document every expense down to the last penny.”
Sen. John Eichelberger agrees.
The Altoona Republican is among a handful not listed in Democracy Rising’s report. He says it’s because he does not collect per diems.
Eichelberger said he would have been eligible for $14,223 in per diems during 2009, but only collected $5008.03 for actual hotel expenses.
“It’s my own policy that I don’t take per diems,” Eichelberger said. “I don’t put in for meals. The only thing I put in for is motel rooms, night by night.”