More accountability needed from lawmakers

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We often hear people say that the private sector can do things better than government. That might not always be true, but when it comes to keeping track of how employees spend money, the private sector definitely does a better job than the Pennsylvania Legislature.


That was illustrated again recently when the Times-Tribune of Scranton took an in-depth look at the expenses of our state lawmakers.


The newspaper’s review of financial records revealed lawmakers received more than $2 million for lodging and meals during fiscal year 2012-13, but the worst of it is that while they were spending those taxpayer dollars, they were not even required to account for where the bulk of it went.


That money, about $1.8 million, was in the form of per diems, the daily, tax-free allowances our representatives in Harrisburg receive for food and lodging. And not a single receipt is required. Wouldn’t you like to know how your money is being spent? We certainly would.


What’s missing, clearly, is any form of outside oversight.


Said Eric Epstein, co-founder of watchdog group RocktheCapital.com, “There’s a need to offset legitimate expenses incurred by legislators. However, too often per diems are tax-free bonuses that legislators can access without oversight. The Legislature should be subject to independent oversight and an auditor that reviews expenses, gifts and per diems.”


As the Times-Tribune report noted, it was just two years ago that testimony in the trial of former Rep. Mike Veon, who was convicted of corruption, indicated that Veon “billed taxpayers $22,000 for meals after nighttime basketball games with other lawmakers and still collected his full per diem.”


Veon was not convicted on that specific charge, but we would think current lawmakers would opt for complete disclosure to avoid even a whisper of such things taking place in the Capitol today.


The Times-Tribune noted state lawmakers get $51 per day for meals. A low-income Pennsylvania family of four on food stamps gets less than $2.50 per meal, based on three meals per day. The newspaper said senators’ reimbursements averaged about $5,700 during the last fiscal year, while the average House member claimed about $8,500. The report noted a Meals on Wheels program could take care of 120 senior citizens for two weeks on the latter amount.


And, of course, these legislative “bonuses” of which Epstein spoke come on top of salaries that exceed $80,000 per year.


And the reimbursements might not even be legal.


So says activist Gene Stilp of Taxpayers and Ratepayers United, who told the Times-Tribune the per diems violate a section of the state constitution stipulating that lawmakers are to receive their salaries and an allowance for mileage for sessions, but no other compensation.


“It becomes a stealth salary that’s not provided for in the constitution,” said Stilp.


He has an ally in state Sen. John Yudichak, a Nanticoke Democrat who has sponsored legislation the last two years to end per diems. Those efforts fared just as well as the ones that attempted to cut the size of the Legislature, which cost more than $300 million to operate in 2012-13. It seems our lawmakers don’t have much interest when it comes to tightening their own belts, even as they expect average citizens to do so.


Pennsylvania has the nation’s largest full-time legislature, and it’s the most expensive to run. We think it’s reasonable for lawmakers to receive money to cover their legitimate expenses while in Harrisburg, but we also believe it’s more than reasonable to expect them to tell us how and where they’re spending our money.


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