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Pa. legislators should show receipts for 'per diem' payments | Editorial

Pennsylvania's General Assembly members rung up $2.5 million in expenses in 15 months, mostly through "per diem" payments that require no receipts for reimbursement. It's time for that to change.

Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is not only one of the nation’s largest legislatures, it’s also one of the better paid.
Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is not only one of the nation’s largest legislatures, it’s also one of the better paid.Read moreMatt Rourke / Associated Press

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Imagine running a business this way: You have 253 employees who ring up expenses while traveling for work. They get reimbursed, but  you — the boss — are not allowed to see any receipts for those expenses.

If you live in Pennsylvania, you are, in fact, running a business that way. It's called the General Assembly.

Any legislator — 203 in the House, 50 in the Senate — who lives outside a 50-mile radius of the State Capitol in Harrisburg can collect tax-free "per diem" payments of up to $183 for daily travel expenses. No receipts are necessary to get paid.

Pennsylvania is home to the nation's largest full-time legislature. So this adds up to a small fortune. By our count, it's running about $2 million per year.

We filed right-to-know requests with the House and Senate on March 23, requesting per diem and expense payments for 2017 and the first three months of 2018. The House produced the requested information in 12 days; the Senate took 14 days.

The General Assembly has a comprehensive website, offering plenty of interesting information. But if you want details about per diems and expenses, you must submit a specific record request form and then wait about two weeks. It all feels so last century.

Our records requests showed the House rang up $2,155,942 in per diems and expenses from Jan. 1, 2017, to March 23 of this year, while the Senate added $387,015. For both, per diems made up the bulk of those costs.

That's more than $2.5 million in 15 months. And there is no paper trail to see where most of that money went.

There are efforts in action to change that.

State Sens. Randy Vulakovich (R., Allegheny) and Patrick Stefano (R., Fayette) reintroduced legislation in March 2017 requiring legislators to submit receipts to collect per diems.

Sen. James Brewster (D., Allegheny) reintroduced legislation in June 2017 to eliminate per diems and allow "only actual expenses" supported by receipts.

Combined, these efforts have 21 cosponsors, which means nearly half the Senate supports action on this. Both bills were sent to the Senate's State Government Committee last year, where nothing has happened.

That's sadly typical for reform measures in the General Assembly.

But State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon), chairman of the State Government Committee, predicts one of the bills will be brought up for a hearing and a vote before the legislative session wraps up at the end of this year.

Folmer, a cosponsor of both bills, said his committee schedule has been packed with other issues this year. He acknowledges the interest among his colleagues, and said the Republican leadership in his caucus is also supportive.

"The good news is we definitely want to do it," Folmer said. "The bad news is I'm looking for the time."

Our advice: Find the time to move on this issue, and quick.  Every seat in the House and half the seats in the Senate are up for election this year. Pennsylvania's legislators work for the state's residents. And the bosses want to see where those millions of dollars in employee expenses are being spent.