By 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.
The weekend per diem expense is often 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.
Lawmakers who collect per diems file expense reports with the House Chief Clerk’s Office. But obtaining the per diem doesn’t require showing any receipts, as the rate isn’t tied to expenses incurred.
Instead of collecting per diems, lawmakers can opt to be reimbursed for individual expenses, such as mileage, meals and lodging. Lawmakers only can pick one method of reimbursement.
State Rep. Dan Truitt, R-Chester, introduced legislation late this session to end the per diem practice and require all reimbursements to be line-item expenses, as is common practice in the private sector.
“From the number of right-to-know requests, it’s pretty apparent the press and the public are suspicious that legislators are taking home a lot more money in per diems than their actual costs are,” Truitt said.
Truitt says a train ticket from his district to Harrisburg is $32.80, for which he receives a dollar-for-dollar reimbursement instead of a per diem. A per diem would give him a profit of around $130 —that he’d get to pocket.
Truitt wraps up his first term this session, but he said he will re-introduce the legislation if elected to return in January.
He said he received support from 11 co-sponsors on the bill, and 10 on an accompanying resolution.
“It was a little better than I thought,” he said of the support. “I thought, ‘This is gonna go over like a lead balloon.”
But Truitt said he is hoping to mobilize the public to push for the reform. Already, per diems are criticized by government watchdogs and the public, as Pennsylvania’s state lawmakers are some of the highest paid in the country.
Lawmakers in Pennsylvania receive a salary of more than $82,000, with access to benefits and pensions. According to 2012 analysis from the National Conference of State Legislators, that’s the second-highest salary for legislators in the nation, as was the case in 2011.
Pennsylvania also has the largest full-time legislature in the county.
Eric Epstein, coordinator of Harrisburg-based government advocacy organization Rock The Capital and longtime Pennsylvania politics watcher, said he’s not holding his breath for a bill like Truitt’s to pass anytime soon.
“The Legislature is not adult enough to police its own ranks,” he said. “There has been a systematic abuse of per diems for decades. The executive branch doesn’t utilize them anywhere, why does the legislature think they’re above the law?”