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Money for nothin' and perks for free

Tax-free expense money for state lawmakers increased in 2015, a year of no state budget but economic pain for many who aren’t state lawmakers.

Michael H. O’Brien (from left), Rosita Youngblood, Vanessa Lowery Brown, Stephen Kinsey and Mark Cohen.
Michael H. O’Brien (from left), Rosita Youngblood, Vanessa Lowery Brown, Stephen Kinsey and Mark Cohen.Read more

YOU LIKELY DON'T need another excuse to loathe our bloated, do-nothing Legislature. But, what the heck, how about a little piling on?

Throughout last year, in which legislative productivity was so low not even the basic task of passing a budget got done (still hasn't, by the way), lawmakers collected nearly $1 million more in expenses than in the prior year.

This is tax-free money paid as per diems. Up to $185 daily for food and lodging, no receipts required.

You read right: no receipts required.

And, yes, while they didn't fund others, they funded themselves.

Using a right-to-know request, Harrisburg's WHTM-TV, an ABC affiliate, found that the 203-member House paid out more than $2.1 million in per diems; the 50-member Senate, more than $247,000.

For House members, that's an average of more than $10,000 each.

The argument goes, well, they had to be in Harrisburg more (because they couldn't get anything done) and they're working so hard on budget issues (which they couldn't get done).

The truth is, their lack of progress - which forced many nonprofits to curtail social services and/or lay people off, and has school districts borrowing millions to stay open - meant more for their wallets.

No receipts required.

Their base pay is $85,339. Leaders get much more. They all get annual automatic raises, no matter their performance, and great health and pension benefits.

In fairness, some take no per diems, including Philadelphia Sen. Tina Tartaglione.

But she's the sole exception among Philly's 22 House members and seven senators.

I plowed through hundreds of pages of per diem payouts and, collectively, the city delegation beat the House average: a total of $385,000, for an average of $13,275 each.

Gotta make ya Philly proud.

They're all Democrats, except GOP Lone Ranger Rep. John Taylor ($15,600).

And the top five, um, winners representing the city with more than $20,000 each?

Michael H. O'Brien; Rosita Youngblood; Vanessa Lowery Brown, who's fighting corruption charges; Stephen Kinsey; and, of course, Mark Cohen.

Cohen's always an expenses leader, often the leader. But now, approaching 42 years in the Legislature, perhaps he's somewhat sated.

O'Brien says his expenses are high because he's on several committees (they all are), including the Appropriations Committee (as are four other Philly members with fewer expenses). The committee holds three weeks of budget hearings (to no avail, I'd add).

But O'Brien also says the House should require receipts: "I'd be happy to submit receipts."

House Speaker Mike Turzai's spokesman, Jay Ostrich, confirms the no-receipts deal, but says members are required to "affirm in writing" legislative reasons for per diems, adding that GOP leaders made "rules and limits to per diems resulting in substantial savings."

Please note my restraint regarding any head-in-the-sand comments.

Most members simply write "session day" or "travel day" or "legislative business" as reasons for taking per diems.

Occasionally there's a more detailed explanation. Among my favorites is from Cohen. He charged taxpayers in July to "review a letter" to the Human Relations Commission and "research" a House resolution on the Iran nuclear deal.

(I assume you're shaking your head.)

Only three Philly House members in office all of 2015 took less than $10,000 in per diems: Reps. Dwight Evans, now running for Congress; Cherelle Parker, now on City Council; and W. Curtis Thomas.

The Senate is far less abusive than the House. Only one of Philly's senators, Vincent Hughes, took a five-figure amount ($17,800). Hughes is Democratic chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

So much in Harrisburg undermines faith and trust in public service.

Those who seek to serve with honor are broad-brushed with the taint of those who take advantage of taxpayers through lax, outdated policy.

Receipts for expenses won't reverse the rotten reputation of America's largest full-time legislature. But they'd be a step in the direction of some accountability.