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End abuse of per diems

| Sunday, June 10, 2012, 10:09 p.m.

HARRISBURG

For decades, state lawmakers have been pocketing per diems when they travel to the Capitol for sessions, committee meetings -- or just to get away from home for a while.

They collect this flat daily stipend of $157 on top of their $79,000 salaries, ostensibly for food and lodging. No receipts are required.

Many legislators play it straight.

But in the past, many have raked in per diems at every turn -- for committee meetings close to home, attending funerals of colleagues, legislative business done for trumped-up reasons, and phony "non-session days" when the House is technically in session but no votes are scheduled. Some have had houses in Harrisburg and used the money toward rent. Others have stayed at cheap hotels and pocketed the difference. There have been instances of legislators staying home, being "ghost voted" at the Capitol, and collecting per diems.

Influential legislators have often put the arm on lobbyists to buy expensive dinners and, of course, never deducted those meal costs from their per diems. On busy days, the House or caucuses brought in catered food.

It's called double dipping.

House Republicans who take over control of the chamber in January are wrestling with a way to reform per diems as part of an overall package aimed at eliminating state fleet cars and requiring members (like virtually everyone else in the private sector and state Senate) to contribute toward the "Cadillac" health care plan they enjoy courtesy of taxpayers.

It's to the credit of new leaders -- incoming House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, and House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods -- that they are moving forward on something of symbolic importance to voters: tightening their own belts during a recession as state government moves next year to slash state spending.

They want to end per diem abuse as well.

"It's time to restore trust with the public and show them we are listening to what they want," said Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver County, entering his second term next year. "The first step toward making Harrisburg run like a business is to make the House run like a business."

The old guard will typically resist.

Gov.-elect Tom Corbett gave it a push to take action.

Dealing with per diems seems to be the toughest issue to reach agreement on. One proposal would have lawmakers sign affidavits that they incurred overnight lodging costs. Another idea is to limit the opportunities for collecting per diems to voting sessions and standing committee meetings. There are IRS standards coloring the debate.

The solution is too obvious and it begs the question of why lawmakers haven't done it long ago. Set a ceiling to cover food and lodging for session days in Harrisburg, based on the IRS rate for per diems. Then allow legislators to charge actual costs documented with receipts. If the cap is $157 a day, the legislator could submit receipts up to that amount. It's the way it works for many in the business world. If it's less, they get paid less. If it's more, they eat the difference.

If they're playing it straight, why would anyone care if their hotels and meals are covered?

It's called the Hilton factor.

A lot of legislators stay at Harrisburg's most expensive hotel. They don't want constituents or potential opponents knowing they're staying at a Hilton at state expense.

There are plenty of other, more modest options available.

House Republicans are moving in the right direction. Let's hope they can finish the job and seal the deal.

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