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Harrisburg waste, part IV

Despite mounting criticism in recent years, state legislators in Harrisburg continue to enjoy some of the most expensive perks in the nation.

It's another one of the wastes of tax money cited by the 28th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury.

One of the most costly perks is the "per diem" expenses paid to legislators simply for showing up to work in Harrisburg. In theory it's to reimburse them for hotel and meal expenses, to a maximum of $163 per day (or $258 in Philadelphia year-round and in Hershey during the summer months.) But in reality, the grand jury reported, the system "is a combination of an elected member's sense of entitlement and the 'time warp' way of abusing tax monies."

They collect this money on top of their salaries, on top of their Cadillac health-care benefits and other perks.

In recent years, some individual legislators have collected as much as $46,000 per year in per diem expenses -- more than the salaries of lawmakers in most other states.

The grand jury also heard information about a "scheme" in the House Republican Caucus to further pad legislators' expense accounts. Most voting sessions in Harrisburg occur on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Thursdays of such weeks are considered "non-voting" session days. On those Thursday mornings, the report said, the House Republican leaders would set up their caucus room with a breakfast buffet of donuts, eggs and fruit plates. A sign-in sheet was made available. Any Republican legislator who simply signed in for the breakfast would be entitled to collect full per diem expenses courtesy of taxpayers for that day.

And then there are the state-paid cars for legislators, at a cost of several hundred dollars per month per legislator. Although the use of these vehicles has declined in recent years, more than one-third of legislators lease these taxpayer-subsidized vehicles. Pennsylvania and California are the only states that still offer this perk to state legislators.

Travel, too, is often paid by the state in dubious circumstances -- such as legislators billing the state for their annual Christmastime trip to the Pennsylvania Society gala in New York City.

Legislators talk a good game about being careful with your tax money. But when it comes to spending it on themselves, they spend freely and often.