HARRISBURG — Taxpayers could save at least $8 million in salaries, benefits, travel and lodging for lawmakers by reducing the size of Pennsylvania's Legislature, the largest full-time assembly in the nation, a Tribune-Review study shows.
House Speaker Sam Smith will try again to cut the General Assembly from 253 members to 203, a 20 percent reduction. A bill he reintroduced would cut the size of the House by 50 members, to 153.
The state paid $34 million for salaries, pension and health care costs for House and Senate members, plus $7 million in travel costs and per diems, for the 2011-12 session. A 20 percent reduction in those expenses would amount to $8.2 million.
"If they can reduce the size of government in any way, I am all for it," said Tracey Downs, a real estate agent from Hempfield. "We're still spending more and more money. Where is all the money going?"
Smith, R-Punxsutawney, acknowledges the change would save money, but spokesman Stephen Miskin said his motive for authoring the bill is to make the House more efficient. The bill won House approval last year but died in the Senate.
Harry Meyer, 82, of South Fayette doesn't expect there to be a smaller state government in his lifetime.
"I'd like to see it," he said.
The Senate gets by with 50 members, Meyer said, and he wonders why the House needs more.
"Do we need more bills? Do we need more people to introduce bills?" he asked.
During the 2011-12 session, lawmakers filed 5,641 bills, and 373 of them, or 6.6 percent, became laws.
Pennsylvania pays its legislators a base salary of $83,802 and guarantees perks such as pensions averaging $31,314 and comprehensive health care coverage costing them 1 percent of wages. They get state-paid cars if they choose, and about $160 per day for food and lodging — payments that do not require receipts.
Taxpayers paid more than $3 million for lawmakers' vehicles, fuel and mileage reimbursement last session, records show.
The travel costs are in addition to $3.9 million in per diem food and lodging payments that the Tribune-Review reported in January.
Travel costs included state-paid vehicle leases, some of which exceeded $600 a month; gas and oil reimbursement for rental cars; and mileage reimbursements for members driving their own vehicles. A lawmaker can choose whether to drive a personal car and collect mileage — as much as 55 cents per mile — or use a state-paid vehicle with gas reimbursement.
Reducing the government's size would reduce some of these costs, said Don Thomson, chairman of the Westmoreland County Conservative Coalition. He contends a state fleet is unnecessary.
Nate Benefield, analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, thinks returning to a part-time citizens' legislature that meets a few months a year is a better way to reduce costs. Reducing the number of lawmakers would not significantly cut costs unless the government's 2,700-member staff is reduced, he said.
Bills to cut the assembly's size have languished for years, but legislation sponsored by the House speaker improves its prospects.
Yet impediments exist, said J. Wesley Leckrone, political science professor at Widener University.
"If you decide to cut the Pennsylvania Legislature, you (as a legislator) are setting yourself up potentially for an incumbent-to-incumbent race," Leckrone said.
Because Pennsylvania's is a "professional legislature" and not a citizens' legislature such as New Hampshire's, "you're looking at this as a means of livelihood," Leckrone said.
Lawmakers, particularly those from rural areas, make a "plausible argument" that as the size of House districts increases, contact with legislators and perhaps resulting service for constituents would decrease, Leckrone said.
Even critics say allowing lawmakers mileage reimbursement tracks a common practice in business.
"However, those payments don't have to be as generous as they are," Benefield said.
The Trib's review of records found that Rep. Patrick Harkins, an Erie Democrat, received the most mileage reimbursement over two years: $59,380. Combined with $30,398 in per diems, he collected $89,778 for travel — more than his salary.
"I am actually closer to the Ohio capital (Columbus) than to Harrisburg," said Harkins, whose home is a 330-mile trip from the Capitol steps.
"I'm not looking to get rich. I know it's probably high," said Harkins, who sometimes drives to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for legislative business.
Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, collected $33,406 for mileage, the second highest amount in the House and more money than three other Erie representative. Costa could not be reached. With per diems of $55,495, his two-year combined travel reimbursement was $88,541.
In a story about per diems in January, Costa said he had nothing to apologize for and does not consider per diems "a perk." Trips to Philadelphia for committee meetings increased his totals, he said.
Senate records show Sen. Michael Stack, D-Philadelphia, billed taxpayers more than $600 over two years for charges identified as "car washes." Stack and his aides did not respond to emails or phone calls seeking comment.
"I don't know why the taxpayers have to pay for someone's car washes," said Eric Epstein, founder of the legislative reform group Rock the Capital.
The highest priced state-paid leased vehicle costs $644 per month: a 2009 Mercury Mariner hybrid. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, who drove one of those, said the state Department of General Services "sets up the lease . and sets the price."
Evans said he believes a leased vehicle is "more of a savings for the state." An annual lease rate of $7,728 assumed for two years, plus $3,305 in gas reimbursement, totals $15,456. That's less than some lawmakers collected for mileage but higher than others.
"I'd be making money every time I went to Harrisburg if I took mileage," said Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, who drives a 2009 Ford Escape from General Services. His combined two-year cost with gas reimbursement: $19,570.
The use of state-paid vehicles declined during the past few years as lawmakers switched to collecting mileage, according to General Services figures. In 2009-10, 115 lawmakers leased state vehicles, compared with 75 last session, records show.
House Republican leaders urged members to drop state cars, Miskin said.
"We did away with those car leases, in large part, in response to the public outrage," Miskin said.
The car program has improved during the past 10 years. Legislators used to be able to lease a vehicle for as much as $650 a month from an auto dealer they chose in their home districts. And previously, lawmakers could get reimbursed for mileage while driving a leased car.
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com