McKeesport Democrat Brewster reverses stance on per-diem payments
When James Brewster won a special election in 2010 to represent the 45th Senate District, he immediately pledged that he would not accept per-diem payments for legislative work in Harrisburg.
And, during 2011, he didn't.
But that changed in April 2012, just weeks before he was unopposed on the ballot for a full four-year term.
From April 2 to Nov. 13 last year, the McKeesport Democrat collected $4,555 in per-diem payments for 35 days in Harrisburg, according to records the Penn-Trafford Star received from the state Senate through a Right-To-Know Law request. On 23 days, those payments included “lodging expenses incurred,” the records show.
Brewster was re-elected in November to represent a district that includes Trafford, Monroeville and Pitcairn.
“If you want to say I didn't follow my pledge 100 percent, then I guess that's what you have to say,” Brewster, a former McKeesport mayor, said during an interview this week. “I adjusted my thinking based on my expenses, but I didn't adjust it for $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000.”
During the 2011-12 session, legislators typically were eligible for as much as $163 a day for food and lodging. Overall, taxpayers covered $3.9 million in per diems for House and Senate members over that time in addition to each legislator's base salary, which was $82,026 in 2012.
The expenses are a legal, tax-free perk for legislators who live more than 50 miles from the state capital, and Brewster, 64, said he changed his philosophy on taking per diems but still thinks the Legislature should eliminate them.
After his first full year in office, Brewster said, he told his office manager he would begin taking the payments to reimburse himself for “minimal” expenses for lodging and food in Harrisburg. He said he and his office manager monitor the payments on a quarterly basis to make sure he doesn't collect more than he spends.
At $33,355, Tim Solobay, D-46, had the highest total among the 31 senators who accepted per diems.
Kim Ward, a Republican whose 39th District includes Penn Township, didn't take any payments. Republican Don White, who represents Murrysville and the rest of the 41st District, ranked 21st in the amount he accepted, $15,051.
White said he only accepts per diems when state business requires him to be in the capital.
“I consider Harrisburg to be a working location,” he said. “It's certainly not a destination resort, and I'm only there when I have to be.”
Though Brewster had the second-lowest per-diem total among senators who collected the payment, a former political opponent says the payments show that Brewster was not true to his word.
Accepting the per diems shows that Brewster “is a politician, not a statesman,” said Paul Olijar, one of two candidates Brewster defeated in 2010.
“It's evident that whether it's a dollar or $100,000, if it's a pledge not to do it, you don't do it,” said Olijar, a Republican who formerly served on the Plum School Board.
A Nov. 17, 2010, press release on Brewster's official website about his taking the oath of office stated he pledged that he would not accept “a daily per diem.”
A year later, he reiterated that stance in an article published in the McKeesport Daily News.
“I've always tried to lead by example,” Brewster said in the Dec. 3, 2011, story. “Taking less salary (as mayor), donating to charity. (As a senator,) I don't take the per diem, I don't take the state car.”
Brewster repeated some of those themes this week, when he said, “If anybody is any more inexpensive in public office than I am, God bless them.
“If a small detail is that I took something when I said I wouldn't do it, yeah, that happened, but I don't think it's anything exorbitant.”
Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or firstname.lastname@example.org.