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Lawmakers defend trip to conference

| Monday, Nov. 3, 2003

HARRISBURG -- The state budget crisis didn't stop 31 Pennsylvania lawmakers from flying to San Francisco on a July junket that cost taxpayers more than $58,000.

With human service and mass transit programs reeling from spending cuts that went into effect July 1, lawmakers were racking up $204 a day in unaccountable expense money or charging $238 per night at first-class hotels at the National Conference of State Legislatures' five-day annual conference.

Pennsylvania remains the only state in the nation without a complete budget. Public schools still await $4 billion in the basic state subsidy, and some districts have said they'll have to close their doors by Dec. 31.

Legislators' costs for the trip July 20-25 only now are coming to light as a result of a review of members' expenses last week by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

"It's hypocritical. It's hugely insensitive," said Al Condeluci, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Pittsburgh. "I don't mind tightening my belt and sucking it in if everyone is doing it."

Condeluci's agency provides services such as in-home care and skills training. State budget cuts forced him to lay off three staff members -- a case manager and two trainers. Their salaries totaled $51,000 per year.

"Maybe if these politicians had to directly seek reimbursements from their constituents they would have thought twice before taking a personal pleasure trip on the taxpayers' dime," said Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Harrisburg.

But lawmakers said the conference provided valuable insight on issues such as health care, transportation, homeland security and how other states are coping with deficits.

House Minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls, defended the travel by legislators, saying the timing of the conference made no difference. "These types of conferences take place throughout the year," he said.

Veon said events of the past three months show -- in terms of a final budget deal eluding negotiators -- it would not have made any difference if the House had remained in Harrisburg the week of the conference.

Veon charged taxpayers $2,811 for the trip, including $365 for a rental car while in California (and $33 a day to park it.) Asked why he needed a car, Veon said, "It's a big city. It's spread out. I usually rent a car (when traveling in another city)."

An Avis receipt provided by the House Clerk's office did not show the make and model of the car Veon rented. Veon said he does not recall the type of car he rented. The receipt showed the car as class "E" which Avis describes as a full-size four-door like a Buick Century.

House Majority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, said the conference was not "a frivolous expense." He paid his own way because he was combining it with a personal vacation.

In addition to Veon, the following western Pennsylvania House members charged taxpayers for the trip: Democrats Rep. Don Walko, of Pittsburgh's North Side; Rep. Dan Frankel, of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill section ; House Minority Leader Bill DeWeese, of Greene County; Rep. Paul Costa, of Turtle Creek; Rep. Frank LaGrotta, of Ellwood City; Rep. Jake Wheatley, of Pittsburgh; Rep. James Shaner, of Dunbar Township, Fayette County; Rep. Ted Harhai, of Monessen; and Republican Rep. Jess Stairs, of Acme.

The conference registration fee was $410. Lawmakers' flight costs -- which varied widely -- were in most cases paid by the state. In San Francisco, legislators either could charge $204 a day for lodging and food or charge actual expenses. State lawmakers are paid $64,638 annually.

Despite a sea of red ink facing most states, attendance increased for the conference, said spokesman Gene Rose. About 6,600 people attended, compared to 6,200 the year before in Denver. That counts legislators, staff, lobbyists and media.

Rose attributed the increase in attendees to "San Francisco being one of the top-tier destinations in the country."

Rep. James Roebuck, a Philadelphia Democrat, had the highest flight cost by far of any Pennsylvania lawmaker traveling to San Francisco.

His round-trip flight cost the taxpayers $2,378. The House Clerk's office said Roebuck booked a nonstop flight.

His airfare costs for the conference were more than triple the airfare cost of most other Philadelphia lawmakers who flew to San Francisco. Roebuck could not be reached for comment.

Harhai charged the state for a $266 round-trip flight and the $410 registration fee. "I took care of everything else. I just paid for it," Harhai said. He said he paid the balance out of his own pocket because he took an extra day's vacation in California.

"I'm not out to gouge anybody," Harhai added.

Shaner, who charged $1,427, said he has only gone to one other conference in nine years. Asked about the timing, Shaner said, "Because we didn't have a budget• We still don't have a budget. The timing may not have been the best. But that was up to the people running the conference.

"I think it was worthwhile. It gives you an opportunity to see what other states are doing. I focused on education, finance, transportation and telecommunication issues," Shaner said. "Do I think it was beneficial for the money• I do."

Stairs defended the value of the conference but agreed Pennsylvania should limit the number of lawmakers and staff members attending. "I think we should control that," said Stairs, who charged the state $1,600. "It is too big of a group. If that means I don't go, then I don't go."

Hours before leaving for the West Coast, the House approved legislation to legalize slots at race tracks aimed at fueling property tax cuts statewide. GOP Senate leaders said the bill was "dead on arrival."

"I felt we had done all we could do to get the ball rolling," said Costa, who charged the state $1,827 for the trip. Costa said he paid for his own airfare. He charged six per-diems of $204 while in San Francisco.

"Had we been told to be in session, I would not have gone," said Frankel, who charged taxpayers $1,745 for the trip.

Frankel called the trip "a worthwhile expenditure of time and money."

Walko said the trip was "bad timing" given the unresolved budget crisis, but added that was "beyond my control." Walko said he gained information from other state lawmakers on health care issues. Walko's bill for the trip came to $1,870.

"You learn a lot just from interacting with members of General Assemblies of other states," said LaGrotta, who charged $2,518 for the trip.

"It was something my leadership asked me to attend as a new member," said Wheatley, who charged $1,791. "It was very eye-opening for me that so many other states were facing the same thing."

Many meals were provided, such as the host state's "California night," with food samples from across the Golden State. There also was an evening dinner cruise on a yacht for the Pennsylvania delegation paid for by energy company lobbyists.

The $58,000 estimated cost for state taxpayers doesn't count an unknown number of legislative staff members who accompanied their bosses. Rep. Tim Hennessey, a Chester Republican, said he still has not submitted all his expenses. House Speaker John Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, attended the conference but charged the trip to his campaign account, said spokeswoman Beth Williams.

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