State representatives differ on per-diem expenses

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

The four state representatives who serve the Penn-Trafford area have different philosophies when it comes to claiming per-diem payments from the state for food and lodging.

In the last Legislative session, Democrat Joe Markosek collected more than $28,000 in unvouchered payments for hotel rooms and meals during state work when he was away from his Monroeville home, and Democrat Ted Harhai of Monessen collected more than $35,000 in similar per-diem payments.

Meanwhile, Republican Eli Evankovich of Murrysville claimed about $5,600 in per diems in his first two-year term, and Republican George Dunbar of Penn Township didn't accept any per-diem payment.

With lawmakers charging taxpayers $3.9 million during the 2011-12 session for per diems, statewide reform groups such as Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania and Rock the Capital again are calling for legislators to pass a law requiring them to submit receipts for expenses amassed while outside of their district on official duties.

Leo Knepper, executive director of Cumberland County-based Citizens Alliance, said the existing per-diem system – in which a legislator may take a tax-free allowance for food or lodging without documenting the expense – is wasteful. He said there is no reason why Pennsylvania legislators shouldn't be held to the same standard as anyone in the private sector who has to submit receipts.

“These are very tenable rules that can be put in place, and it's just common sense,” Knepper said.

Legislators differ on their opinion about the per-diem system, which typically makes $160 to $163 a day eligible to those who live more than 50 miles from the state capital, based on a calculation by the Internal Revenue Service. The per-diem rates for overnight travel to Philadelphia for committee hearings were $233 in 2011 and $242 in 2012.

Those are payments legislators may receive in addition to their $83,802 base salaries.

While Markosek, who started his 16th term this month, said he has seen studies that show it might be more expensive for the state to administer a full-fledged system based on receipts, Evankovich is among a group of newer legislators that supports a change. Evankovich said the $5,646 he received was based on receipts he kept. He said he backs a proposal by state Rep. Dan Truitt, a second-term Republican from Chester County, to limit reimbursements for legislators to their actual expenses.

“My philosophy is, I seek reimbursement for expenses that I incur,” Evankovich said. “The system isn't set up for it to be additional compensation.”

“As a guy who comes from the business world, I spend the taxpayer's money just like I spend my own, which is very frugally,” he added.

Markosek defended his per-diem payments as appropriate because they're determined by the Internal Revenue Service.

As a longtime lawmaker, Markosek has ascended to a significant leadership post, serving as the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. That committee alone meets for about three weeks straight in Harrisburg in late winter, he said. In the last legislative session, Markosek estimated, he spent more than 200 nights away from his home.

“If you take my expenses and divide by 200 to 300 nights away from home, it's not unreasonable,” he said.

Though longtime political observer Terry Madonna says the per-diem policy is “very liberal in its use,” Madonna — the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College — said he doesn't expect any alterations to be a legislative priority in the new session.

Lawmakers already are concentrating on the state budget, the proposed privatization of management of the Pennsylvania Lottery, potential privatization of the state's wine and liquor stores, public pension reform and transportation funding.

At $35,117, Harhai, a nine-term legislator, collected the most among the Westmoreland County delegation. Harhai, whose district includes Manor and part of North Huntingdon, didn't return a call requesting comment about ranking 17th-highest among the 165 House members who received per diems.

That's in contrast to Dunbar, who in his first term, didn't collect any per diems.

Dunbar said he turns in his receipts from stays at a hotel in Camp Hill, near Harrisburg, for $72 a night. He said doesn't collect reimbursements for food.

Dunbar, a certified public accountant, said he supports a receipt system because there needs to be accountability at all level of government.

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8671 or Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report.

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