Their View: Harrisburg reform starts with expenses

The following editorial appeared in the Erie Times-News.

Members of the General Assembly have a pretty good gig. In addition to their regular pay, which ranges from $85,339 for rank-and-file lawmakers to $133,219 for presiding officers, they also can collect as much as $170 a day for lodging and meals when they stay overnight for a legislative session or a committee meeting. If they don’t stay overnight, they can collect $52 a day for meals.

They are eligible for per diems for overnight stays whenever they travel at least 50 miles to the state capital or to other places in Pennsylvania on state business. Legislators can collect the per diems whether they stay in a hotel or split rent for an apartment. And they can collect meal expenses even if they’ve eaten a free continental breakfast at a hotel or gone to a meeting where a group provides or picks up the tab for a meal.

Pennsylvania’s per-diem policies are unfair to taxpayers because lawmakers are not required to submit receipts for their actual expenses. “I don’t stay at a palace. I’m at a Motel 6,” state Rep. Patrick Harkins, D-Erie, told the Times last week for a report on legislative expenses.

It’s admirable for Harkins to choose a bargain motel, but the fact is that he and other legislators can still collect a full per diem even if they’ve paid $39.99 for a room at a Motel 6 and eaten from the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s. Lawmakers keep the difference after paying their actual expenses.

Pennsylvania legislators make more money than lawmakers in any other state except California. Taxpayers have a right to know about the additional compensation they receive, including reimbursements for mileage or using a vehicle on a state lease. Lawmakers should also list how much they pay to rent office space in their districts. All of this information should be readily available and easy to access on legislators’ websites.

But with the state’s budget in a precarious position, it’s time for legislators to lead by example and abolish the per-diem system and replace it with an expense system that requires lawmakers to submit itemized expenses with receipts.

There should also be a cap on reimbursements, as there is under the current system, so lawmakers don’t run up big bills at fancy hotels or restaurants.

State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, D-Erie, now in his second term, switched to taking the per diem instead of submitting his actual expenses because he had to wait as long as a month to get reimbursed when he submitted his actual expenses. As Bizzarro pointed out, that lag time hurt, especially because he is repaying $700 a month in college loans.

The delay in reimbursement is unacceptable. Make legislators accountable for their expenses, and make state accountants accountable for cutting the reimbursement checks promptly.