The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 10, 2012

Lawmakers get $100,000 in weekend per diems

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:

• State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, totaling more than $6,570.25 for 43 weekend days.

• State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Allegheny, totaling $3,690 for 22 weekend days.

• State Rep. Dick Hess, R-Bedford, totaling $2,741 for 17 weekend days.

• State Rep. Curtis Sonney, R-Erie, totaling $2,605 for 16 weekend days.

Lawmakers’ weekend per diem expense often is 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.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat print edition.

Click here to subscribe to The Tribune-Democrat e-edition.