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New state 'reform' officials party on public

| Thursday, March 8, 2007

HARRISBURG - Two freshmen lawmakers who campaigned as legislative reformers charged state taxpayers for catered receptions hours after taking office.

Rep. Chelsa Wagner, D-Beechview, charged the state $1,286 for a buffet luncheon attended by more than 75 friends, supporters and community leaders Jan. 2. At an adjoining event in the Keystone Building, next to the Capitol, Rep. Matthew Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, hosted a slightly smaller reception for $914, House records show.

Tim Potts, co-founder of Democracy Rising PA, a legislative reform group, said charging the state right away for food costs is "really disappointing."

"If I were in that position, I'd pay for it myself or charge it to the campaign," said Potts, a former top Democratic House staffer. "It's certainly not what taxpayers expect from people who said they were coming to change the way Harrisburg does business."

The House allows such expenses by lawmakers, said Chief Clerk Roger Nick.

The clerk's office also charged the state $30,000 for a general reception held in two locations at the Capitol for lawmakers to bring their friends and family for a meal after the swearing-in ceremony, Nick said.

Smith and Wagner were the only two among 11 freshmen lawmakers from Western Pennsylvania to charge their own opening day receptions to taxpayers, according to House records.

"It was not extravagant by any means," Wagner said.

The cost for a hot buffet at her reception was $16.75 a person, according to a copy of the receipt from Two Gals Catering in Steelton, Dauphin County. Smith used the same caterer at a cost of $13.75 a head.

Wagner said she considered the reception state business.

"It wasn't a campaign activity," she said.

In no way does it take away from her commitment to reform on issues such as open government and fairer redistricting, Wagner said.

"That was really a constituent outreach effort," said Smith, who added he was too busy on the House floor to attend his reception.

Both lawmakers said they consider the receptions no different than holding constituent breakfast meetings in their districts -- a common practice among lawmakers. Both said they are turning down perks such as a state car.

Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Beaver County, said he bought hoagies and his wife made cookies for the event he hosted in his office Jan. 2. The Marshalls used powdered orange drink for beverages.

Rep. Lisa Bennington, D-Morningside, said her family wasn't thrilled that all she bought them were "little cinnamon buns" in the Capitol cafeteria because the line was too long at the clerk's general reception.

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