The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 23, 2013

Legislator expenses targeted

Per diems pay for travel, food

John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — State Rep. Dan Truitt, a Republican from Chester County, has more than a dozen co-sponsors for a bill that he will soon introduce to eliminate the use of unvouchered expense reimbursements claimed by lawmakers for meals and lodging, typically when they travel to Harrisburg.

In the most extreme cases, lawmakers racked up more than $25,000 last year by billing the state when they traveled from their home districts.

The House was in session just 67 days in 2012 and the Senate was in session 59 days.

But some lawmakers claimed reimbursements more than 100 times, including days when they traveled to committee sessions.

Truitt said his legislation would require that lawmakers submit receipts for reimbursement for their travel expenses.

His legislation would not bar lawmakers from claiming those expenses.

The per diems are intended to compensate those lawmakers who represent districts that are hours from Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania is one of 45 states that allow lawmakers to request compensation for unvouchered expenses. Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island do not allow lawmakers to claim per diems, according to information provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The biggest payments were made to western Pennsylvania lawmakers. Rep. Dominic Costa, a Democrat from Allegheny County, was paid $25,596 for 146 per diem requests in 2012.

Rep. Chris Sainato, a Democrat from Lawrence County, was paid $24,306 for 162 per diem requests, according to information obtained by filing a Right to Know request.

The payments are in addition to the $83,802 yearly base salary paid to lawmakers.

Truitt said he hopes more of his colleagues will support the measure once they understand that the legislation would allow them to continue receiving reimbursement for their travel expenses.

Truitt said he is not convinced that the legislation would save much money, but it would provide greater transparency about the way lawmakers are spending tax dollars.

“It could be a wash,” Truitt said. “I think the public wants us to do business the way most other businesses do.”

Truitt said that public pressure is the only way that his legislation will gain traction in the Legislature.

Most of the lodging per diem payments were for $159 or $163 a night. But in some cases, lawmakers were reimbursed in excess of $200 a night, records provided by the House and Senate show.

Sen. Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican, said that the per diems are tied to federal calculations and are supposed to represent the cost of a night’s lodging plus meals for the day. As a result, in some cases, lawmakers who are not spending the night in Harrisburg will submit what are called partial per diems to get reimbursed for meals. Corman, who lives about two hours from Harrisburg, submitted only 11 per diems for lodging in 2012. The bulk of Corman’s $5,466 in per diem payments were for meals.

Corman agreed with Truitt’s suggestion that eliminating per diems might not save money if the move also lifts the ceiling on how much lawmakers can spend.

Sen. John Gordner, a Columbia County Republican, serves on the operational committee that sets rules regarding how per diems can be claimed.

He said that the last time the group looked at the issue, they modified the requirement to compel lawmakers to specify whether the request was for lodging. Otherwise, the per diem system has not been a priority, said Gordner, who received $10,335 in per diem reimbursement payments last year.

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