January 24, 2013
Two bills that could be introduced in Harrisburg this month seek to end the policy of per diems – the guaranteed payment lawmakers receive for days they’re in Harrisburg or attending a committee meeting elsewhere in the state.
But most state legislators representing this area already shun the practice, instead opting for their actual food and lodging expenses to be reimbursed with the proof of a receipt.
Rep. Dan Truitt, R-West Chester, has introduced the bill in previous sessions and has yet to see it gain much traction. But some of those lawmakers who do not collect the per diems say they see no reason the practice should continue.
Currently, both House and Senate members can collect a $163 daily per diem, which is not taxed and is guaranteed whether or not they ate a meal or spent the night while in Harrisburg.
This money is in addition to a rank-and-file member’s $83,802 base salary.
But a review of local legislators’ practices show only one senator, John Gordner, R-Berwick, and three representatives, Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre; Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, and Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, have collected per diems in the most recent session, though Gordner and Mundy do not take the full amount to which they’re entitled.
Gordner said he requests $132 per session day to cover the known cost of the hotel he stays in and a meal, rather than taking the $163 he is eligible to receive.
“Currently the hotel government rate in Harrisburg for a Sheraton or Hampton Inn or a Marriott chain is $108. If you add sales tax and county bed tax, the bill is $119,” Gordner said in an email. “I add $13 to pay a portion of my food cost for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If I were to submit actual expenses, it would be higher. So I submit for $132.”
Boback used a similar formula to collect expenses.
Pashinski said he takes the full amount of per diems because he believes the practice is fair, not abused and actually saves taxpayers money. He said he will collect them this session, too.
Pashinski said the issue was vetted by the finance budget office and showed the additional costs incurred to hire additional staffers to comb through the receipts and requests for reimbursements outweighed any savings of issuing only receipt-proven expenses. If Truitt’s bills were to come to a vote, he said he’d oppose them.
Truitt: Restore trust
Truitt, in a phone interview, said he does not believe the state would lose money with the switch.
“I believe it will be a wash. The gain is we’d restore the public trust,” Truitt said.
State Sens. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, and John Blake, D-Archbald, all file for actual expenses incurred.
The same practice has been followed by Reps. Sid Michael Kavulich, D-Taylor, Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, and Tarah Toohil, R-Butler Township.
Carroll, who accepted per diems his first two terms, decided to switch to actual expenses last term and is sticking with that route this session.
“I do actual expenses because I think it’s the sincere and principled way to provide an actual accounting to the taxpayers,” said Carroll, who noted if Truitt’s bill came to the floor for a vote, he would support it.
Mullery, the only Democrat to sign on as a co-sponsor on Truitt’s bills, said he not only submits receipts for reimbursement rather than accepting per diems, but he also does not seek remittance for his meals, even if it’s a minimal cost.
“Never have, never will,” Mullery said. “I have to eat three meals a day whether I work down here or not. Why should taxpayers foot the bill just because I am a legislator?”
He has submitted receipts for hotel rooms when he’s required to stay overnight in Harrisburg, but if he can get home to Luzerne County, he says he will.
While he believes the proposal to end per diems “is a great idea,” he doesn’t think it has much of a chance of making it out of committee.
“Any time you’re attempting to take a benefit away from a group, you’re going to run into resistance,” Mullery said.
Even Truitt, who crafted the bill, gives the odds of making it out of committee “about a 30 percent chance.”
Yudichak: Be accountable
Yudichak said he weighed both options and came to the conclusion that filing receipts for reimbursement rather than just accepting blanket per diems without any proof money was spent was the “more accountable” way to go.
“It’s a personal choice. Like any issue, you can make an argument on one side or the other,” Yudichak said. According to his expense report, on Oct. 18, 2011, he stayed overnight at a Camp Hill hotel, then purchased breakfast in the morning. His total bill for the two was $76.35.
Had he collected per diems, he would have received more than twice that amount even though he didn’t spend that money.
While some, like Yudichak and Carroll, accepted per diems before changing course and deciding submitting receipts was the most open way to go, Mullery, Kavulich, Toohil and Blake all ran on the promise not to accept per diems.
“During my campaign for Senate, I promised the people of the 22nd District that I would not accept per diems. I also noted that reimbursement for actual expenses was, in my opinion, a more appropriate, responsible and transparent manner in which to assure accountability to taxpayers regarding legislative expenses,” Blake said.
Baker echoed Blake’s comments saying that “In seeking to serve as state senator, I pledged to be fiscally responsible and accountable to taxpayers. One way to live up to this pledge is to not accept per diems. Instead, I submit only for actual expenses incurred for legislative duties,” Baker said.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported last week that lawmakers collected $3.9 million in per diems in the 2011-12 session. The House, with 203 members, compared to 50 in the Senate, accounted for $3.5 million of that during the two-year session.