Oh, how our lawmakers care for themselves

Posted: August 20, 2013

I'LL ADMIT IT. I get tired of telling you how awful your Legislature is.

How it's an offense to decency and democracy, a swamp of self-interest, a skid mark on the porcelain of Pennsylvania.

You already know it's too big, costs too much and is filled with greedy, overperked people doing little or nothing for the city or the state.

And if it isn't busy sneaking pay raises or holding farewell soirees for colleagues headed to prison, it's hiding from problems like roads and bridges, pension reform, any reform, Philly schools, you name it.

It doesn't change. It doesn't get better. And it gets old.

But every time I try to stay away, something pulls me back in.

This time, it's a report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on one of my favorite abuses: the per-diem program.

You remember per diems, right?

They're tax-free payments of up to $185 a day that lawmakers get on top of salary (base pay is $83,800; leaders get $130,800) if they show up for work or claim to.

They get such payments whether the Legislature is in session or not.

They're supposed to be for legitimate meal and lodging expenses but require no receipts, no proof at all that they're actually used for that purpose.

Imagine any employer anywhere passing out expense checks with no evidence of expenses.

Yet, your Legislature does month after month, year after year, no questions asked.

There's no limit to the number of days lawmakers can get per diems.

Did I mention they're tax-free?

The Tribune-Review reports on payments during 2011 and 2012 just for days the Legislature was not in session.

The total is $1.3 million or, as the newspaper notes, a year's worth of income taxes from more than 900 average Pennsylvania wage earners.

The top taker, no surprise, was Philadelphia Democrat Mark Cohen: more than $38,000 for nonsession days, including all seven days of a week one July right after the Legislature left for summer.

Cohen told the newspaper that his days spent in Harrisburg when the Legislature isn't there are a sign of his dedication.

I assume he meant his dedication to getting as much of your money as possible.

He said getting away from his Philly district gives him "an absolute focus" on research and efforts at bipartisanship: "I try to look for ways to cross party lines so things can happen and get done."

Excellent plan. It just eats tax dollars and evidently takes awhile.

You see, Cohen, a 38-year House veteran, has been packing in expenses for a generation. He was the per-diem leader back in the '80s.

Now he has competition. Democratic Reps. Chris Sainato (Lawrence County) and Dom Costa (Allegheny County) each collected more than $34,000.

All this, of course, is money that does not go to any of Pennsylvania's or Philadelphia's needs related to education, transportation, public health, etc.

Does anyone who's not a lawmaker think this is a good use of public funds?

Yet, there it is, year after year.

And remember, the $1.3 million was for nonsession days. Total House per-diem cost during 2011-12 was $3.4 million.

I asked House Republicans and Democrats about the radical notion of providing receipts for expenses.

GOP spokesman Steve Miskin danced. He said leaders are always looking at reforms. He didn't say they're looking at receipts.

He argued that 2011-12 per diems dropped 34 percent from the previous session after lawmakers were required to (at least) list a "legislative purpose" for expenses.

This tells you two things: A third of lawmakers grabbing per diems couldn't even make up a legislative reason to do so, and no receipts will be required.

House Democratic spokesman Bill Patton did not respond. Maybe he's on vacation. The Legislature is - from July until the end of September.

But members still can collect per diems. So keep those tax dollars coming.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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