As the archetypal inspirational educator of Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams exhorted his charges, "Carpe diem: Seize the day, boys!" Williams joked in interviews at the time that if the film's 1950s prep school had been a 1980s business school, he may have instead instructed, "Carpe per diem: Seize the check!"
The late comedian's modification is a motto fit for the Pennsylvania legislature (runner-up: "What's in it for us?") - as we have just been reminded by the case of Jim Wansacz. The former state representative and Scranton area Democrat was one of several Harrisburg lawmakers who earned infamy by avidly collecting largely unregulated per-diem payments - money ostensibly available to cover their temporary lodging and other travel expenses while on official business - even though they owned homes in the capital.
Over a decade in the state House through 2010, Wansacz seized nearly $163,000 in per diems. That was more than enough to cover the price of his Harrisburg pied-à-terre, which he bought for $72,000 in 2003.
Now Wansacz has sold the property for a substantial profit. The sale, first reported by Harrisburg's CBS 21 last week, brought him $115,000, or $43,000 more than he paid for the house. Moreover, the television station and others have reported, Wansacz had been collecting rent from other legislators - potentially more than $1,300 a month, according to a real estate listing - which, given the tenants, may well have been covered by the taxpayers, too.
Currently a Lackawanna County commissioner, Wansacz at one point told the Scranton Times-Tribune that despite appearances, he was somehow losing money on the deal. Since the sale, however, he has been publicly silent on the matter.
While earning the second-highest legislative salaries in the nation, $84,000 a year, Pennsylvania lawmakers are also allowed to collect per diems of up to about $160 a day just for showing up in Harrisburg. These are supposed to be reimbursements, but unlike the rest of us, lawmakers are not required to document their expenses or restrict them to official workdays. The money is simply provided in a show of improbable trust in our representatives. And Wansacz's case is just the latest to demonstrate that they can't be trusted.
All told, the state spends about $2 million per annum on per diems, according to analyses by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and others. The newspaper found last year that State Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Phila.), a longtime overachiever in the field, was grossing about $27,000 a year over and above his salary.
Of course, not every legislator's behavior is so gross. In March, State Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R., Allegheny) introduced a bill to require legislators to submit receipts for reimbursement. His colleagues have rendered their collective verdict on this sensible idea by refusing to subject it to so much as a committee vote.
In the context of a state budget measured in the billions, per diems are hardly sinking Pennsylvania's credit rating. But they are allowing the legislators responsible for the state's deteriorating finances - amid other mounting policy failures - to seize another unearned reward.