By Melissa Daniels, Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania lawmakers collected more than $1.2 million in per diem payments during the first six months of 2013, according to data collected by PA Independent.
A total of 32 lawmakers – all members of the state House – collected more than $10,000 in per diem payments during the first half of 2013. (Full list here)
Of the $1.2 million in total payments, more than $1 million went to members of the state House. There are 203 lawmakers in the House and only 50 in the state Senate, but even with that discrepancy the state House collected an outsized share of the daily non-receipt reimbursements.
Nine of the top 10 recipients of per diem payments were members of the House Democratic caucus.
But members of both parties make out quite well from the system. Democrats collected $703,000 during the first six months of the year, while Republicans took home $520,000.
Per diem payments are covered through the House and Senate accounts.
In order to claim a per diem, an overnight expense has to be incurred. But this doesn’t have to be on a session day, as it can be used for committee meetings in Harrisburg or legislative business elsewhere involving travel.
The payments are given at a rate determined by the IRS for mileage and travel, not actual expenses, and rates vary based on geographical location. Lawmakers can collect between $50 and $163 per day.
That amount may be higher than how much the lawmaker’s mileage and lodging actually cost. On the flip side, a per diem may not cover complete expenses for a lawmaker’s trip, especially for those that travel from as far as Erie, about a 300-mile, five-hour drive.
State Rep. Dom Costa, D-Allegheny, took home $15,300 in per diem payments during the first six months of the year – good enough to rank third among all lawmakers.
But Costa said reimbursements for travel and lodging are in line with what any business would provide for its employees if those employees had to spend as much time on the road as he does, traveling back and forth from his Pittsburgh district office to the state Capitol in Harrisburg, a 202-mile drive.
“I’d rather have you guys write that I’m in the top 10 of per diems every month than write that he doesn’t show up to committee meetings and isn’t doing his job,” Costa said.
When the Legislature is in session, it usually meets from Monday morning through Wednesday afternoon. Costa said lawmakers from western Pennsylvania usually drive to Harrisburg on Sunday nights and will not head for home until Thursday morning, meaning extra hotel stays.
He also pointed to legislative activities that take place outside of the usual session days, like meetings of the special committee on school safety, of which Costa is a member.
But that doesn’t sit well with state Rep. Dan Truitt, R-Chester, who is aiming to do away with the per diem system.
Truitt is one of several lawmakers backing a series of bills to require receipts for all expenses.
“I think the number one reason is public perception. I think it just looks bad,” Truitt said. “When you have a few people abusing the system, it makes the whole General Assembly look like crooks.”
Truitt said he hopes one of the bills to end per diems would be advanced this fall, but he is still gathering supporters.
Costa said moving to a direct expense reimbursement system would actually increase costs because each receipt turned in would have to be evaluated separately, likely requiring a team of accountants.
That may be true, Truitt said, but at least the public will have more transparency than in the current system, where lawmakers can claim flat per diem rates and pocket the money without turned-in receipts.
According to IRS rules, per diem allowances are not treated as taxable wages. Nor are they considered compensation, said chief clerk of the senate Russ Faber.
“The concept centers on the premise that if the employee agrees to use the rate established by the IRS, they don’t have to save their receipts,” Faber said. “The benefit of it from the employer’s standpoint is the reduced administrative and processing costs.”
According to our data, 76 lawmakers did not collect a single per diem during the first six months of 2013.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t get reimbursed for expenses, as lawmakers who submit receipts and are reimbursed for individual expenses were not included in PA Independent’s tally.
According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, most states have some sort of expense reimbursement program for lawmakers – though Pennsylvania’s daily payments are higher than most states.
Lawmakers in Pennsylvania make a base salary of about $80,000 plus full benefits.