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Lax rules, you pay: The Harrisburg per diem racket

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
pahouse.com

HARRISBURG

Rep. Mark Cohen is right. The Philadelphia Democrat and world record-holder in collecting per diems (only a bit of a stretch) is allowed to claim per diems when he spends holidays working at the state Capitol, drops in at a committee hearing when he's not a member and for a week straight in the summer when the Legislature is not in session. A recent Trib study showed Cohen collected the most in per diems ($38,000) on days the Legislature was not in session in 2011-12.

Per diems are flat payments for food and lodging lawmakers can collect when they're away from their districts on legislative business. They're often in the $160 range but fluctuate based on rates set by the federal government. Legislators, who are paid $83,802 annually, are not required to document how they spend the per diems.

Cohen has been at this for quite some time. In 1990, the Philadelphia Daily News reported Cohen had collected for 501 “legislative business” days at $88 each (the per diem rate then), including weekends and holidays such as Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Easter, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Yom Kippur.

There were two months in 1990, February and April, in which Cohen took $88 in expenses every day, the newspaper reported.

Cohen says he comes to Harrisburg so often in order to have an “absolute focus” on his work. There is no doubt he works hard. He doesn't have a condo or other residence, as some lawmakers do, when they use the per diems to help cover their rent or mortgage payment. Dropping in on a committee where he's not a member is all part of making him a better legislator, he says. He'd be able to get a per diem anyway on those days because the standard for getting a per diem, he says, is being in Harrisburg.

At the time of the Daily News report, Cohen was attending law school at Widener University's Harrisburg campus but he told the newspaper that didn't interfere with his workload on behalf of his constituents.

Cohen does this because he can. One might be quick to condemn. Certainly an argument can be made for restraint — a lot of restraint in Cohen's case.

But Cohen is doing nothing illegal. He is not breaking the rules. He's doing what he's allowed to do.

To the extent there are rules on per diems, they are lax and permit weekend and holiday per diems. Nothing prohibits a non-committee member from signing the attendance sheet to collect a per diem.

Receipts? Who needs them?

House and Senate per diems cost taxpayers $3.9 million in 2011-12.

The problem isn't Mark Cohen, the poster child for legislative per diems. The blame rests with legislative leaders of both parties (and the members who elect them) for not tightening the rules on non-session per diems.

Brad Bumsted is the state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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