State lawmakers spend most on selves every June, records show
HARRISBURG — Sixty-four thousand dollars doesn't buy enough food to sate the appetites of state representatives.
During a five-day period last year when House leaders spent that much on catered meals, members still claimed $105,000 in per diems — the flat, unaccountable expense payments that are supposed to cover their food and lodging — according to state records compiled by the Tribune-Review.
The year before, House leaders bought almost $23,000 in food over three days and members claimed nearly $60,000 in per diems, records show.
“The bank gets robbed every day with these guys,” said Joe Poniewaz, 66, a retired Pittsburgh police officer.
If history is any guide, legislators will spend more money on themselves this month — about $400,000 — than any other in 2013. State records show that to be the case in previous Junes, as lawmakers scramble to finish the state's budget by June 30.
Crafting a budget keeps lawmakers at the Capitol late into the night, said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Republican leaders. That's why caterers bring in meals, he said.
“It's done because it's going to be a long night, and you want to keep members here. It's not right for them to be hungry. They need a clear mind,” Miskin said.
He said the cost of hotels where legislators decide to stay determines how much of a per diem remains for food. Many legislators living near Harrisburg don't charge for per diems.
Last June, lawmakers racked up more than $488,000 in per diems, catered meals at the Capitol, hotel stays and restaurant bills, records show. More than $412,000 of the total paid for per diems, which lawmakers award themselves rather than submitting receipts for reimbursements. Per diem rates, which are set by the Internal Revenue Service, typically were $160 to $163 per day.
“There's no accountability,” said Poniewaz of Lincoln Place.
June 30 was the most expensive day, at nearly $39,000, which is about as much as 25 average income tax filers —making about $50,000 apiece — pay combined in state income tax in a year.
House rules allow lawmakers to partake from catered spreads during late-night sessions, or meals provided during caucus and committee meetings, according to a September 2008 memo to representatives from Comptroller Alexis Brown. Only “offsite” meals, for which a leader or committee chairman picks up the tab at a restaurant, require a deduction from per diems, Brown said. The memo has not been updated since 2008.
Senators have their own dining room, where they pay for meals, but not for a staff member who works there and has other duties.
Some in the House, including Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, took the per diem on the same day as a flat meal allowance. Readshaw collected a $163 per diem and $52 meal allowance on June 7, 13 and 22, according to House records.
Readshaw collects the $52 to pay for food on the way home, at the end of session weeks, his aide Barbara Mowery said. It's allowed under an IRS rule in certain circumstances, she said.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, collected $185 a day, or $22 more than the per diem rate, on 12 days last June by eschewing the flat $163 per diem in favor of a $134 lodging allowance and $51 meal allowance.
Turzai takes more money per day in June because Harrisburg-area hotel rates increase as tourists begin to flock to Hershey and Gettysburg for summer vacations, Miskin said.
In June 2012, the House spent about $64,000 with three Harrisburg caterers: C&J Catering, Our Daily Bread and Zia's at Red Door.
More than $51,000 of that — about the same as the state's median household income — was billed over four days: June 26, 28, 29 and 30. During those same four days, lawmakers claimed about $99,000 in per diems and meal allowances.
C&J received almost $31,000 that month, Our Daily Bread got about $28,000, and Zia's received $6,000, according to legislative expense records.
“If they're voting on something special, then they'll have dinner brought in,” said Minnie Siegfried, owner of Our Daily Bread. The catered meals usually include a meat dish, pasta and a salad, she said.
C&J and Zia's did not return calls.
House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, and Turzai deduct money from their per diems when they eat meals brought in during late-night sessions, Miskin said. Without submitting receipts for expenses, there's nothing to stop a lawmaker from eating catered meals and keeping the leftover cash from his per diem.
“It creates a culture of entitlement. The arrogance is astounding,” said Tim Potts, a citizen activist from Carlisle.
Some legislators have rented or owned apartments and used per diems to pay the rent or mortgage. Lobbyists often pick up the tab for meals.
The Appropriations chairman, Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware County, charged more than any legislator last June — about $5,200 in per diems and meals, according to state records. That's more than the amount three average taxpayers pay combined in a year's worth of state income taxes.
That's because the bulk of his expenses were meals for committee members and staff, said his aide, Michael Stoll.
“Often, there's little time for staff or members to leave” the Capitol for a meal, Stoll said.
Adolph charged a lot more in March, during state budget hearings.
In March 2012, he charged $8,795.86 in meals and per diems. In March 2011, he charged $19,887.24 in per diems and meals.
Those amounts cover breakfasts and lunches typically for staff, members, witnesses and others attending appropriations hearings, Stoll said. The hearings run all day, and there's sometimes no chance to eat, he said. Not all members partake, he said.