The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


September 23, 2013

Just how much are taxpayers dishing out for politicians' Capitol commutes?

HARRISBURG — While there are mixed signals about whether they will accomplish anything when they get to the Capitol, one things is clear: It is going to cost taxpayers to get lawmakers to Harrisburg.

The state constitution requires that lawmakers be compensated for their costs of traveling to the Capitol, and more than 190 members of the state House regularly submit mileage claims for travel to Harrisburg and around the state.

Those lawmakers were reimbursed for gas purchases to the tune of $1.77 million in 2012 and 2013, government records obtained under the state Right-to-Know law show.

That’s on top of their $83,801-a-year salary and $185-a-day in unvouchered expenses lawmakers can claim once they arrive.

Eric Epstein, an activist with Rock The Capitol in Harrisburg, said that mileage for travel to the Capitol is one of the largely hidden perks for lawmakers that many taxpayers don’t realize exist. All told, when everything is included, the total compensation for a state lawmaker in Pennsylvania tops $100,000 a year.

“They have all kinds of financial spigots they can turn on for themselves,” Epstein said. And due to gerrymandering of political districts, almost all lawmakers feel safe enough that they feel free to take the perks available to them, Epstein said.

Eighty-three members claimed more than $10,000 in mileage expenses in the last 18 months and 13 claimed more than $20,000 in spending on gas.

State Rep. Patrick Harkins, D-Erie, may have the longest travel to the Capitol, and he makes the most of it. His district is about 300 miles from Harrisburg.

Harkins is the undisputed mileage king, racking up $53,163 in mileage claims in 2012 and 2013.

That’s double the $23,668 amount of mileage claimed by Flo Fabrizio, another member of the Erie County delegation in the state House.

“The public understands there’s a cost of doing business.  I’m not living a life of luxury,” Harkins said. “But I didn’t take a vow of poverty.”

Harkins said he spends  a lot of extra time on the road because he is a member of the House education committee and other busy legislative committees.

This week, he will be in Harrisburg from Sunday to Wednesday, then return home for a family event Wednesday night. But then, Thursday, he is due to go to Williamsport for a committee meeting.

State Rep. Dick Stevenson, R-Mercer, said that the costs of mileage are driven up by geography. Stevenson has submitted $5,897 in claims for reimbursement for gas.

“I put 40,000 miles a year on my vehicle,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said that he has heard of cases of lawmakers carpooling, but he doesn’t believe any currently do.

Managing the costs of gas consumption is the responsibility of each individual lawmaker, Stevenson said.

State Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence, has an idea that would help drive down the costs of the Legislature, including operating costs, such as gas consumption.

Gibbons has proposed legislation that would merge the two chambers of the Legislature into a unicameral assembly.

Gibbons estimates this would save $90 million a year. The Senate and House have duplicate organizations around almost identical legislative committees. Merging them would cut the number of legislative staff dramatically.

But merging the chambers also would reduce the number of lawmakers.

Nebraska is the only state with a single chamber legislative assembly.

Nebraska merged its legislative chambers in the Depression and immediately saw its cost of operating the Legislature drop by 50 percent, Gibbons said.

Gibbons has turned in $9,164 in claims for mileage expenses in 2013.

It’s a cost that comes with the territory when you represent a district 240 miles from the Capitol, Gibbons said.

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