Per diems: Some lawmakers love them, others shun them
HARRISBURG - More than half of the 30 lawmakers who represent Northeast Pennsylvania in Harrisburg collected nearly $200,000 in fiscal 2011-12 through per diems - tax-free daily allowances that require no documentation of how the money is spent.
Nine of the region's representatives each collected more in per diems than the House Majority Leader, an analysis revealed.
As a whole, state lawmakers collected more than $2 million in per diems for food and lodging expenses that year. Legal but controversial, the payments are in addition to a lawmaker's annual base salary - $82,026 in 2012 and $83,802 this year.
The purpose of per diems is to reimburse lawmakers for lodging and meals incurred while being away from home at the Capitol or attending a committee meeting in other parts of the state. The Internal Revenue Service has issued a rule saying a lawmaker's district is his or her "tax home," making trips to the Capitol a business expense.
The IRS sets maximum per diem rates for lodging and meals in various cities. The maximum Harrisburg rate was at $163 and $160 during fiscal 2011-12, but individual lawmakers don't always claim the full amount and some seek reimbursement for money spent on lodging or meals.
Many lawmakers abuse per diems and more accountability for this spending is needed in the form of an independent review, said Capitol activist Eric Epstein, cofounder of RocktheCapital.com.
"What is distressing is the gap between per diem requests for legislators who reside and represent districts in close proximity," said Epstein. "There is no objective standard that explains why Rep. A requires more per diems than Rep. B. And, there is no connection between increased compensation and better legislation."
Lawmakers say per diem spending is down since the legislative pay raise controversy eight years ago. A number of lawmakers pledged while campaigning for office not to take them and have opted to submit expense receipts for lodging and meals instead.
House per diems totaled $1.9 million and Senate per diems totaled $270,000 during fiscal 2011-12, according to a Right-to-Know request filed by the newspaper with the House and Senate chief clerk's offices.
House per diems ranged from a high of $31,166 to $203. Senate per diems ranged from a high of $17,132 to $1,158. Seventeen of the 30-member Northeast Pennsylvania delegation collected per diems in fiscal 2011-12, according to records.
They are: Reps. Matt Baker, R-168, Wellsboro; Karen Boback, R-117, Harveys Lake; Neal Goodman, D-123, Mahanoy City; Sandra Major, R-111, Montrose; Phyllis Mundy, D-120, Kingston; Eddie Day Pashinski, D-121, Wilkes-Barre; Mike Peifer, R-139, Honesdale; Tina Pickett, R-110, Towanda; Mario Scavello, R-176, Mount Pocono; Mike Tobash, R-125, Pottsville; and former Reps. Kevin Murphy, D-113, Scranton; and Ed Staback, D-115, Archbald; both whose terms ended last Nov. 30. Also collecting per diems were: Sens. David Argall, R-29, Tamaqua; Pat Browne, R-16, Allentown; Lisa Boscola, D-18, Bethlehem Twp.; John Gordner, R-27, Berwick; and Gene Yaw, R-23, Williamsport.
The three new House lawmakers representing Lackawanna County since January - Reps. Marty Flynn, D-113, Scranton; Frank Farina, D-115, Jessup; and Kevin Haggerty, D-112, Dunmore, - said they submit expense receipts for reimbursements.
Nine House members - Pickett, Murphy, Staback, Mundy, Baker, Scavello, Major, Pashinski and Boback - each collected more per diems than House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh, whose total was $11,436.
Turzai's leadership post means more time spent on administrative duties in Harrisburg. Turzai has sought to rein in his per diem spending by not taking reimbursement for meals on nights where the caucus picks up the tab or he attends a dinner function, said his spokesman Stephen Miskin.
Pickett had the highest per diem total of regional lawmakers at $18,507 and Tobash, who mainly submitted $50 meal reimbursements, had the lowest, $1,417.
Per diems amounts can vary depending on whether a lawmaker heads a committee or sits on a committee that meets more frequently, such as Appropriations or Judiciary. Other factors include whether a lawmaker stayed overnight because of the driving distance from Harrisburg or the site of a committee meeting.
Argall drew criticism from Capitol activists during a 2010 congressional campaign for collecting annual per diems in the $10,000 range. His $6,956 per diem amount for fiscal 2011-12 is second-lowest among Northeast Pennsylvania lawmakers. Argall said he cut lodging expenses by renting a Harrisburg apartment with a cheaper lease and submitted per diems at the lesser amounts of $157 and $159, according to Senate records.
Two area lawmakers are seeking to make their expense spending more transparent to the public. Reps. Sid Michaels Kavulich, D-114, Taylor, and Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-108, Rockefeller Twp., who aren't taking per diems, post reports on their legislative websites about their expenses. Mr. Kavulich billed $590 for travel in November 2012, for example.
Other regional lawmakers not taking per diems during fiscal 2011-12, according to House and Senate records are Reps. Kurt Masser, R-107 Ralpho Township, Rosemary Brown, R-189, Middle Smithfield Twp; Mike Carroll, D-118, Hughestown; Doyle Heffley, R-122, Lower Towamensing Twp.; Jerry Knowles, R-124, Tamaqua; Gerald Mullery, D-119, Newport Twp.; Tarah Toohil, R-116, Butler Twp.; and former Rep. Ken Smith, D-112, Dunmore; and Sens. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp.; John Blake, D-22, Archbald; and John Yudichak, D-14, Nanticoke.