Pa. lawmakers collected $1.3M in per diems when they weren't in session
HARRISBURG — Salaried jobs typically don't yield overtime pay, but the state Legislature isn't a typical workplace.
Legislators collected $1.3 million in 2011 and 2012 for coming to work on days the General Assembly wasn't in session. The per diems come in flat amounts of $51 to $185 and are supposed to cover lodging and meals, but no receipts are required.
That $1.3 million amounts to a year's worth of income taxes from more than 900 average wage-earners in Pennsylvania. It's money that didn't go to roads or schools but instead went into lawmakers' pockets for days they cast no votes.
The untaxed payments are in addition to lawmakers' regular salaries, which range from a starting salary of $83,802 to $130,820 for top leaders.
Lawmakers grant themselves the money to cover food and housing expenses, but as a recent Tribune-Review investigation found, they often get taxpayer-financed meals at the Capitol when the Legislature is in session.
Some, such as Rep. Mark Cohen, a Philadelphia Democrat, claimed entire weeks' worth of the payments — at $163 each per day. Others grabbed $52 to buy meals on days they drove home from Harrisburg — enough money for a mound of food from a turnpike rest stop that would be impossible for most people to consume in one sitting.
Lawmakers must take the smaller per diems when they don't stay out of town overnight.
Pennsylvania taxpayers will spend $277.5 million on the Legislature this year. It's the nation's second-largest with 253 members and one of eight year-round legislatures.
Members consider themselves full-time lawmakers, but almost half of 28 leaders report outside incomes, most commonly through law firms. Among the top 10 recipients of non-session per diems, two list outside income on mandatory state ethics disclosure forms.
One frequent critic of the politicians' per diems calls the system “a food stamp program for legislators.”
“The solution is to abolish per diems, not modify a bad paradigm,” said Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital, a reform group. “Fifty-two dollars for some people goes a long way at the market.”
And $1.3 million goes a long way in the state budget, said former Republican Rep. John Kennedy.
“Wonder how many kindergarten classes will close for lack of (funding) as a result of the heist by some of those legislators,” said Kennedy of Camp Hill, chairman of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit small-government advocacy group based in Lemoyne.
The system, Kennedy said, “ensures those inclined to cheat will cheat.”
“Whether it's taking 52 bucks to cover turnpike hot dogs, or showing up at committee meetings where you're not even a member and signing your name on the sign-up sheet, or whatever other trick is handy, they just do it,” he said.
Leader of the pack
Cohen led the pack of collectors, taking in more than $38,000 in per diems when the Legislature wasn't in session in 2011 and 2012. Democratic Reps. Chris Sainato of New Castle and Dom Costa of Stanton Heights followed with more than $34,000 each.
Sainato and Costa did not return calls seeking comment.
Cohen said the number of days he spends in the capital reflects his dedication to his work.
“I have no other job in Harrisburg. I don't own a vacation home here. I don't own a timeshare,” he said.
Getting away from his district allows him to have “an absolute focus” on research and discussions with staff and citizens, Cohen said.
During the week of July 10, 2011, when most lawmakers went home for the summer, Cohen racked up $1,161 in per diem payments over seven days.
Cohen said he uses his time in the Capitol, in part, to bridge party divides.
“I try hard to look for ways to cross party lines so things can happen and get done,” he said.
Crossing a line?
House and Senate records show that about $300,000 of the $1.3 million in non-session per diems went to lawmakers for attending committee hearings.
Lawmakers sometimes claim per diems for attending hearings of committees they aren't assigned, something Cohen acknowledged doing. There is no minimum amount of time a lawmaker must be in the room to collect the per diem.
“I could have gotten a per diem anyway” on those days, Cohen said, because the standard for collecting a per diem is “being in Harrisburg.”
That's not good enough for some.
“I've seen it on committees on which I served,” said Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County. “You hear other members grumbling about it.”
Roae sponsored a bill and a House resolution to limit per diem collection to committee members, or those testifying before a committee. His legislation would bar collection on weekends unless they fall during, just before or just after a session day.
But that wouldn't affect most per diems.
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, criticized Cohen for trying to get paid for showing up to committees to which he doesn't belong — but the conservative firebrand collected more than $21,000 over two years. That includes $4,800 for non-session days, more than $2,300 of which Metcalfe collected in $52 food allowances.
He defended his payments, saying they pay for as many as three meals a day when he leaves Harrisburg for the 3½ hour drive to Cranberry.
“A lot of times I don't get home till after dinner,” he said.
Per diems are common in the private sector, and many lawmakers aren't gaming the system, said Jack Treadway, a retired political science professor from Kutztown State University. But people tend to hear about per diems only when legislators abuse the payments, he said.
“I think a lot of people view this as another part of the gravy train these guys are riding,” Treadway said. “That leads to thinking this is just another bonus, and people believe they are overpaid anyway.”