The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

September 11, 2013

Per diems add up for taxpayers

Over $1M in unvouchered expenses claimed in ’13

John Finnerty
CNHI State Reporter

HARRISBURG — State Sen. Elder Vogel billed taxpayers $3,587 for his spending on  meals and lodging during his time in Harrisburg and while traveling on business in the first half of 2013.

But, the senator’s reimbursements were only half the amount he could have claimed if he had not turned in his receipts and simply filed a claim under the General Assembly’s per diem system for reimbursing members.

Vogel pays $70 a night at the Radisson in Camp Hill.

“That’s the legislative rate,” Vogel said. “There are quite a few House members and a couple senators who stay there.”

Vogel, R-Lawrence, is one of 21 state senators who spurn the use of per diems, which allow lawmakers to claim as much as $185 a day for lodging and meals without requiring documentation of how much lawmakers actually spent.

Taxpayers paid $172,598 out in per diem payments to state senators in the first half of the year, an average of $8,218 per senator who used the system.

Only six of the 153 members of the state House decline to participate in the per diem system. Thus far in 2013, the state has paid over $1.1 million to House members for unvouchered meal and lodging expenses, an average of just over $7,500 per member who filed claims through the per diem system.

Some of the highest totals went to lawmakers who are active members of legislative and policy committees, including several western Pennsylvania Democats. Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence, Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer, and Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, are all members of a House Democratic policy committee that travels the state conducting hearings on policy issues.

All of those lawmakers claimed more than the average amount of unvouchered expenses.

“Being in the minority, we don’t set the agenda,” Sainato said.

The policy committee provides the lawmakers with an opportunity to explore and bring issues to light in an attempt to influence the agenda, though. The committee held hearings on Medicaid expansion, liquor privatization and other issues.

Sainato was reached Tuesday in Philadelphia, where the policy committee was holding a public hearing on education funding.

Sainato said the expenses are a reflection of how much time some lawmakers spend in Harrisburg and traveling the state.

“People think we work 60 days a year because we may only be in session 60 days a year,” Sainato said.

But not all lawmakers agree that elected officials should be billing taxpayers for all the time they spend in Harrisburg.

State Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, has introduced a bill that would crack down on loopholes on things such as lawmakers claiming expenses for visiting the Capitol when it’s closed or attending only a few minutes of a committee meeting.

“A complete elimination of per diems by switching to receipt-based reimbursements would be great, but the votes are not there,” Roae said.  “The votes are not even there yet for my limited proposal.”

Vogel agreed that there is little traction for reform because so many lawmakers are content to pocket the difference between what they spend and what they can claim in unvouchered expenses.

Sainato said that he is opposed to moves that would require lawmakers to provide receipts for lodging and meal expenses. Sainato said he could have 200 claims a year, and tracking all those receipts would be a nightmare.

“That would a lot of paperwork,” he said.