By Brad Bumsted
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
HARRISBURG — During the first two months of the state’s budget im- passe, law- makers in the House and Senate collected $532,585 in per diems for food and lodging payments, records show.
Records filed with the House comptroller and Senate chief clerk show 107 Democrats and 74 Republicans collected per diems in July and August. The $158 daily allowance — a flat payment for which legislators don’t need receipts — is part of the cost to taxpayers for the unresolved budget that was due July 1.
The taxpayers’ costs for per diems would not be incurred if a budget was completed by June 30, as required by law. In the past, the Legislature recessed for 21/2 months, starting on or about July 1. They have approved budgets late for the seven years under Gov. Ed Rendell, resulting in some July per diems. But the costs during this budget impasse are the highest since at least the 1970s.
The payments to legislators during the budget impasse “make me sick,” said Judy Kandel, 67, a Canonsburg retiree.
“I think since they are getting their pay, they don’t give a hoot. They’re looking out for themselves, not the people,” she said.
The House records cover per diems submitted as of Sept. 8; the Senate records, through Aug. 31. Not all legislators claimed their per diems for the two-month period.
But based on available records, Democratic Reps. John Galloway of Bucks County and Ron Waters of Philadelphia collected the most — $7,426 for 47 per diems.
Galloway claimed 30 per diems for days when the House was not in session.
“I thought it was important to be in Harrisburg while this was going on,” Galloway said. “I got a lot of questions from people, ‘Why aren’t you in Harrisburg working on the budget?’ “
Waters did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Both collected more than House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Hazleton, a budget negotiator, who was paid $7,010 for 45 per diems.
Rep. John Evans, whose district covers northwestern Crawford County, collected the most among Republicans: $6,162.
“These are business expenses,” Evans said. “I am not independently wealthy. I don’t have the resources to pay for my food and lodging while I am in (Harrisburg).”
Evans said he did not take a pay check in June, July or August and he did not take his cost of living increase this year.
Legislators can collect per diems on days the Legislature is in session, for committee meetings in Harrisburg or official business in the Capitol, such as spending a day in their Harrisburg offices. The do not need to show documentation on what they used the per diem for.
“(The per diem) is used to pay for meals and lodging while I’m here,” said Evans, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. “My residence is in Conneaut Lake. I don’t have a home (in Harrisburg).”
Evans said his district is among the ones farthest from Harrisburg, which frequently requires him to spend the night in Harrisburg.
“We have a six-hour call for a vote, I could drive home and then have to get in my car and drive right back,” Evans said.
According to figures on the Tribune-Review’s Web site, Sen. Bob Robbins, R-Mercer County, was the only other area lawmaker to request per diems during the budget impasse. Robbins, whose district includes all of Crawford County, requested $2,574.
Pennsylvania is the only state without a budget.
Kathy King, 60, of McCandless said she agrees with bills that have been proposed to prevent legislators from collecting salaries or per diems past the July 1 budget deadline. But she said such legislation isn’t likely to win approval.
“They’re never going to hurt themselves,” she said. “They’re going to make themselves accountable at voting time.”
Eliminating per diems when lawmakers can’t reach a budget agreement “might give them incentive to get it done,” said Don Thomson of North Huntingdon, chairman of the Westmoreland County Conservative Coalition. “They’re getting plenty in their regular ($78,315) salary. They’re working overtime, they might say, but this thing got out of hand.”
Evans said he would support measures to reform the per diem structures, but he “is just a single legislator. (he) can’t make that happen.”
The taxpayers’ tab for per diems will continue to climb. Records reviewed by the Tribune-Review don’t include September, and the Legislature is embarking on a final push to approve the budget, meaning lawmakers likely will remain in session through the weekend.
The House spent $466,895 on per diems and the Senate spent $66,638 during the two months. The average per diem payment to House members for July and August was $3,112. In the Senate, it was $1,959.
“I never take them,” said Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, who said she claims actual reimbursement for a $62 hotel room and mileage but no meals.
“I ran on a platform of accountability and being careful with tax dollars,” Ward said. “I wanted to live up to those words. Don’t let anyone kid you; you don’t have to buy a meal in Harrisburg.”
Brett Marcy, a spokesman for Eachus, defended the payments as a cost of getting the budget done.
“These have been difficult times for all Pennsylvanians, but Rep. Eachus and House Democrats refuse to give up until the commonwealth has a fiscally responsible budget that remembers those who need help the most,” Marcy said. “We’re happy to report that we’re very close to finalizing that budget. The per diems were reimbursements for expenses incurred during the
course of that work.”
Rendell said he wants the Legislature to approve the budget by today. A $3.2 billion deficit and differences over taxes and spending caused the impasse.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Meadville Tribune reporter Dominick DiRienzo contributed to this report.
By Brad Bumsted