Pennsylvania legislators ring up $3.9 million in per diems
HARRISBURG — State taxpayers shelled out $3.9 million during the 2011-12 legislative session for lawmakers' work-related daily food and lodging expenses.
Those who collected the most defend the payments they receive without having to provide receipts.
Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, received the most of any House member or senator: $55,495 in per diems for the two-year period, records show.
“I am not apologizing for per diems,” Costa said. “I am not making excuses. It's not a perk. It's part of the job.”
Costa said he is on active committees and attended dozens of hearings in Philadelphia, where costs are higher than in Western Pennsylvania or Harrisburg.
The federal government sets rates for travel in various cities, and the allowances for daily expenses may be adjusted seasonally.
Trips to Harrisburg typically were $160 to $163 per day. That's a payment legislators may receive in addition to their $83,802 base salaries.
The per diem rates for overnight travel to Philadelphia for committee hearings were $233 in 2011 and $242 in 2012.
Lawmakers need not provide receipts for the payments to prove that they spent the money on their expenses.
Costa said he goes to Harrisburg on Sunday nights to prepare for the week when the House is in session.
“I go to the office, work and get things done (on Sundays),” he said.
As much as he loves the work, Costa, a former Pittsburgh police chief, said he has a mortgage to pay and “it's still a job.”
Costa's total was higher than Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, the subject of news stories about excessive per diems dating to 1990. Cohen's per diems totaled $54,205 during the two years.
“I'm doing my job as a state legislator,” Cohen told the Tribune-Review. “I have no vacation home. I have no time shares. I work hard at being a state legislator. ... I'm in Harrisburg as much as I can be. I believe paying attention to the legislative process is important.”
The problem with per diems is, “They do not require accountability and rely on ‘legislative oversight,'” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, a reform group. “Simply put, the Legislature cannot be trusted to monitor itself.”
The top per diem recipient in the Senate, Democrat Tim Solobay of Canonsburg, wouldn't have cracked the top 10 in the House. Solobay received $32,827 over two years. He said his district is one of the longest distances from the Capitol, along with senators from Erie and Mercer counties.
Solobay said he goes to Harrisburg on Sunday nights for the start of sessions on Mondays.
Newly elected Sen. Randy Vulakovich, a former House member from Shaler, did not accept per diems. Vulakovich, a Republican, said he turns in a receipt for his hotel — about $70 a night. Legislators have the option of receiving actual reimbursement.
“I don't turn in for food,” he said.
Vulakovich said he has no problem with others collecting per diems, given that it's a rate the federal government sets and a capped expense.
“I just think there should be a receipt,” Vulakovich said.
Data not easily obtained
Information on lawmakers' per diems are not readily available in a state office or online. Getting a list requires filing Right to Know requests with the House and Senate.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Tom Corbett last month announced a website called PennWATCH, developed under a law the governor signed to increase transparency in state government. The website doesn't include per diems and legislative expenses.
“With PennWATCH being touted as a gateway to accountability, all legislative expenses and expenditures should be listed, including per diems, perks, pensions and travel,” Epstein said.
Erik Arneson, policy and communications director for Senate Majority Leader Domenic Pileggi, R-Chester County, said he did not know of any state-level budget database that lists every expense.
“If someone does want financial information not immediately available on PennWATCH, it's almost certainly going to be available with a Right to Know law request to the appropriate agency,” he said.
Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, predicted that more legislators will add expense information to their websites and that PennWATCH will include legislative expense records at some point.
Variety of uses
Many legislators, such as Costa, stay in hotels; some rent apartments, such as Rep. Pete Daley, D-Washington County. Others team up to invest in houses. For decades, some lawmakers have used per diems to pay off mortgages.
Solobay shares a house near the Capitol with other lawmakers. He said he sees no issue with using per diems for a portion of a mortgage on a house that could be sold down the road for profit, “if it's still standing.”
“It's not a Taj Mahal,” Solobay said.
Daley, who collected $41,939 in per diems, rents an apartment in Harrisburg for $250 per month.
“If you do (the job) right, you've got to be hands-on,” Daley said. “And that requires being here pretty often.”
Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, submitted requests for $6,213 in per diems for the two-year period.
“It's a reimbursement,” Reese said. “It's not intended to put extra dollars in my pocket.”
Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or email@example.com.