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Pa. lawmakers spent nearly $2 million on meals, lodging, car leases in 2021 | Price of Politics

State legislators collected over $1.5 million in per diems, the non-taxable, no-receipt expenses designed for meals and lodging when lawmakers are on business trips.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In a year where nearly nine out of every 10 pieces of introduced legislation were not acted on by the Pennsylvania General Assembly, lawmakers used nearly $2 million in taxpayer money on meals, lodging and car leases, all while earning the third-highest legislative salary in the nation.

Most of the money came from perks known as per diems. These are the payments lawmakers can elect to receive at the start of the legislative year. The term "per diem" comes from the Latin phrase "each day."

They are mostly tax-free and are designed to be used for meals and lodging when state representatives and senators are on official business. However, there is no way to prove they are being properly used because per diems do not require receipts.

State legislator spending records obtained by FOX43 through multiple right-to-know requests show that, during the entire 2021 calendar year, Pennsylvania lawmakers billed taxpayers $1,511,029 in per diems alone. 

State House representatives billed taxpayers more than $1.4 million in per diems, and State Senators added another $100,000. 

"In Pennsylvania, the legislature prioritizes spending money on itself. That's frustrating," said Democratic activist Eric Epstein.

In 2021, seven of the top ten per diem takers were Democrats, with nine of the ten coming from the House of Representatives. Mercer County Democrats Chris Sainato and Mark Longietti are annual fixtures at the top of the per diem taker list. Sainato took $32,410 in 2021, while Longietti took $32,359.

Sainato was asked to comment on his spending, and told FOX43 that his comments from last May when he was asked about his per diem spending still apply.

"I believe we are supposed to be here," Sainato, minority chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said at the time. "If the frontline workers can come to work so should the legislature."

The rest of the top ten are as follows:

  1. Rep. Chris Sainato (D-Lawrence) - $32,410
  2. Rep. Mark Longietti (D-Mercer) - $32,359
  3. Rep. Frank Burns (D-Cambria) - $21,458
  4. Rep. MaryLouise Isaacson (D-Philadelphia) - $17,745
  5. Rep. Curtis Sonney (R-Erie) - $17,546
  6. Rep. Craig Staats (R-Bucks) - $17,259
  7. Sen. Patrick Browne (R-Lehigh) - $16,727
  8. Rep. Edward Neilson (D-Philadelphia) - $16,541
  9. Rep. Brian Simms (D-Philadelphia) - $15,997
  10. Rep. Jessica Benham (D-Allegheny) - $15,960

"The incentives of keeping the job with the pay, the perks, the per diems, the mileage, all the benefits, prevent good policy," said Nathan Benefield of the conservative-leaning policy group Commonwealth Foundation.

Benefield also agrees Pennsylvania should move towards a receipt-based system, similar to what most companies in the private sector use to cover work-related extra expenses. State Senator Jim Brewster (D-Westmoreland) has a bill which would do just that. He also has proposed legislation to eliminate the use of state leased cars by lawmakers. In 2021, 48 state representatives and senators took a state-issued car, costing taxpayers a $245,415 clip. 

Neither Senate Bill 362 or 363 have gotten off the ground in their committees, among the 85 percent of all bills introduced since the start of the 2021-22 session which Republican committee chairpersons have not introduced for a vote. 

Brewster, however, may have the Republican ally he needs. 

State Senator Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) is a legislator on the other side of the aisle who has been known to embrace change. He is currently among two Republican senators to openly endorse the legalization of recreational adult-use marijuana, long a Democratic policy point. Like Brewster, Laughlin does not take per diems, one of 100 in the legislature who avoid the payments altogether. It is something good government activists have applauded in recent years.

Laughlin has a plan which would shrink the number of per diem takers even more, by eliminating the lawmakers entirely. His bill proposes to shrink the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 203 members to 150. There would then be three State Representatives assigned to each individual senate district. He says the plan would increase government efficiency, both from the perspective of a more concentrated effort to help residents, and financially.

"I'm making a seat of the pants, private sector guess here and saying [we'd save] about $25-$30 million a year doing just that," Laughlin said. 

Like most government reform bills, however, Laughlin's and Brewster's bills sit and wait. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania lawmakers just received a raise.

Thanks to a 1995 law which ties legislator cost-of-living-adjustments (COLA) to the annual rate of inflation, the base salary for a Pennsylvania lawmaker went from just over $90,000 to now $95,432. Lawmakers voted against taking a COLA during the 2021 year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The base salary is third highest in the nation behind California and New York, and Pennsylvania's 253-person General Assembly body is the largest fulltime legislature in the country.

Chairman on the powerful Appropriations Committees -- Republicans State Rep. Stan Saylor and Sen. Pat Browne and Democrats State Rep. Matt Bradford and Sen. Vincent Hughes -- make $127,942 a year. Party caucus leaders -- Republicans Kerry Benninghoff and Kim Ward, and Democrats Joanna McClinton and Jay Costa -- make $138,269, and Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman make $148,976 a year.

"We're not just here working," said House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton. "We're working back home, or we're doing events in our districts for people during this pandemic. The challenge I have is when we have session and we don't vote on bills."

Republican leaders Rep. Kerry Benninghoff and Sen. Kim Ward declined comment to FOX43 for this story.

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