By John Finnerty
A Crawford County state representative is among the co-sponsors of a bill to eliminate the use of unvouchered expense reimbursements claimed by lawmakers for meals and lodging, typically when they travel to Harrisburg.
The per diem payments are in addition to the $83,802 yearly base salary paid to lawmakers.
In the most extreme cases, there were lawmakers who received more than $25,000 last year by billing the state when they traveled from their home districts. John Evans, a now retired Republican state representative whose district covered portions of Crawford and Erie counties, topped the list.
The House was in session just 67 days in 2012 and the Senate was in session 59 days. But some lawmakers claimed reimbursements more than 100 times, including days when they traveled to committee sessions. Evans claimed reimbursements 162 times.
The author of the legislation to change the payment system, Chester County Republican state Rep. Dan Truitt, said he would require that lawmakers submit receipts for reimbursement for their travel expenses. His legislation would not bar lawmakers from claiming those expenses.
The per diems are intended to compensate those lawmakers who represent districts that are hours from Harrisburg.
Brad Roae, a Republican whose district covers eastern Crawford County, is a co-sponsor of Truitt’s legislation.
“Per diem collections should equal actual expenses, and legislators should not collect per diems that are more than their actual expenses,” Roae said.
Pennsylvania is one of 45 states that allow lawmakers to request compensation for unvouchered expenses. Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio and Rhode Island do not allow lawmakers to claim per diems, according to information provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The biggest payments in 2012 were made to western Pennsylvania lawmakers.
Evans, a Republican from Edinboro who represented western Erie County and northwest Crawford County, was paid $26,732 for 162 per diem requests in 2012, according to information obtained by filing an open records request. In late 2011, Evans announced he would retire at the end of his two-year term in 2012. Attempts to contact Evans were unsuccessful. The seat is now held by Republican Greg Lucas.
Others high on the list were Rep. Dominic Costa, a Democrat from Allegheny County. He was paid $25,596 for 146 per diem requests in 2012. Rep. Chris Sainato, a Democrat from Lawrence County, was paid $24,306 for 162 per diem requests.
Crawford County’s two other House members had per diem requests total less than $13,000 for 2012.
Roae had 23 requests totaling $3,817, while Rep. Michele Brooks, a Republican whose House district includes portions of Crawford, Mercer and Lawrence counties, had 54 per diems for $8,802.
“I used the per diem and mine are very low for how far away I live from Harrisburg,” Brooks said. “I understand this is taxpayer money and I work hard to keep my expenses low. We all have different schedules and requirements.”
Brooks said that if Truitt’s legislation makes it to a vote she will vote in favor and begin submitting receipts.
Roae is already doing so.
“I’m reimbursed the exact dollar amount for my Harrisburg expenses,” Roae said. “I save receipts and turn them in every time they total a per diem. The end result is that I am reimbursed for my actual expenses only, not a dollar more and not a dollar less.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Robbins, a Republican from Greenville whose Senate district includes Crawford County, was one of the tops in the Senate with 92 per diems totaling $12,407 in 2012.
Sen. John Wozniak, a Democrat from Cambria County, had 101 per diems totaling $14,181 in 2012.
“I follow the rules whatever they are,” Robbins said. “I’m reimbursed for travel expenses.”
Robbins notes he serves in a leadership position in the Senate as Majority Caucus Secretary. He also serves as vice chairman of the Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee. He is a member of the Senate committees on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Game and Fisheries, Local Government, and Rules and Executive Nominations. He also serves as chairman of the bipartisan Local Government Commission and vice chairman of the Athletic Oversight Committee.
Serving on committees requires more travel as they can meet when the legislature is not in session and sometimes hold sessions in different parts of the state.
Robbins said he’s seen both a receipt system and the unvouchered system during his time in Harrisburg. He served in the state House from 1983 to 1990 and has served in the state Senate since 1991.
There is a benefit to the current arrangement, he said.
“You need less administrative staff with per diems,” Robbins said of the current unvouchered system. “You’ll need a bigger administrative staff for every legislator for every receipt.”
Truitt said he hopes more of his colleagues will support the measure once they understand that the legislation would allow them to continue receiving reimbursement for their travel expenses.
Truitt said he is not convinced that the legislation would save much money, but it would provide greater transparency about the way lawmakers are spending tax dollars.
“It could be a wash,” Truitt said. “I think the public wants us to do business the way most other businesses do.”
Truitt said that public pressure is the only way that his legislation will gain traction in the Legislature.
Most of the lodging per diem payments were for $159 or $163 a night. But in some cases, lawmakers were reimbursed in excess of $200 a night, records provided by the House and Senate show.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for the Pennsylvania papers owned by CNHI, includiung The Meadville Tribune. Tribune reporter Keith Gushard contributed to this report.