Editorial: Another soft, but legal, benefit for state lawmakers

A per diem is a sum of money that an employer will give to someone to cover the expenses of a business trip.

Unless you have a very specific job that requires travel, that’s usually not the sort of thing that gets a big chunk of your paycheck.

But then there are the Pennsylvania state lawmakers.

If you want to make money and run for office, Pennsylvania is one of the best places to go. It’s one of 10 states where being a legislator is a full-time job, earning $ 90,335 per year. (Only California and New York pay more, $ 114,877 and $ 110,000, respectively.) That’s almost three times the state’s average income of $ 34,352. That’s 50% more than the median household income of $ 61,744.

Yet, apparently, this is not enough.

Pennsylvania also offers a per diem of $ 178 when you travel more than 50 miles from your home. In a state nearly 300 miles long, it’s easy to touch. Many lawmakers drive twice or more to get to Harrisburg. Mileage and other transportation costs are separate from per diem, which is meant to cover things like food and hotels, but doesn’t require receipts.

In other words, a lawmaker who travels 60 miles to get to a dinner in his honor may receive an additional $ 178 for doing so.

It can’t really do much, can it? Well, let’s ask State Representative Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence. A story from The Caucus and Spotlight PA – part of a larger investigation into lawmakers’ spending – revealed that he had collected $ 1.9 million in reimbursements, including per diems since taking office in 1994.

Of that, $ 21,951 in spending for 2020 – when many lawmakers were working from home amid pandemic shutdowns. Sainato has never missed a day’s work – something he touted in a newsletter – and retained that record when other state offices were closed.

And he charged the taxpayers for it.

It’s not about Sainato, however. As far as the PA Caucus / Spotlight investigation has shown, he did nothing more than he was authorized to do.

This is the problem. Per diems are not universal, even among neighbors in Pennsylvania. Delaware, New Jersey and Ohio do not offer them. Maryland and New York divided them into an amount for food and one for lodging. West Virginia is offering $ 131 without proof a day, but it pays its lawmakers only $ 20,000 a year.

Some House and Senate leaders have talked about more comprehensive reporting of expenses. Daily allowances circumvent this transparency.

If lawmakers are serious about liability, per diems should be replaced by receipts.

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