Take advantage of the reform mood, eliminate per diems

April 15, 2014

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising in a state that still assiduously maintains a Prohibition-era stranglehold on wine and liquor sales, but it’s only been in the last few weeks that Pennsylvania lawmakers have realized that, heavens to Betsy, they shouldn’t be accepting cash gifts from lobbyists or anyone else trying to influence their votes.

Most states – and, really, most reasonable people – would perceive this as being a form of bribery. But, until recently, the commonwealth’s legislators could accept cash gifts of $250 or less from a single source without the burden of reporting it, or $650 in travel expenses from one individual or organization. Anything above that amount, as long as it was duly noted, was entirely copacetic.

Of course, the money would in no way, shape or form influence how they voted. And we also know of a weight-loss plan where you can shed pounds by loading up on pizza and onion rings.

After news broke that four Philadelphia-area lawmakers were under investigation for accepting large sums from a lobbyist who turned out to be an informant – a case dropped by Attorney General Kathleen Kane because, in her estimation, it was flawed – the state’s House of Representatives amended its ethics rules to prohibit cash gifts from pretty much anyone who isn’t a family member, and the Senate unanimously approved a similar measure, extending it to public officials across the board and employees in the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.

To say this is overdue is putting it mildly. But if the powers that be in Harrisburg are in a reform-minded mood, they should take things a step further and also do away with the system of per-diem payments that legislators receive to cover their daily expenses.

And they have the opportunity to do just that.

At the end of March, state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, a Republican who represents the northern part of Allegheny Count and part of Butler County, introduced a bill that would have legislators turn in receipts for work-related expenses, just like almost everyone does in the private-sector world.

It makes sense. Expect it to be opposed vehemently.

Under the current system, lawmakers who live more than 50 miles away from Harrisburg can claim up to $159 daily for work they do outside their districts and while they are in the state’s capital. This can lead to all kinds of abuse that is, technically, legal. They can be compensated for the equivalent of gourmet meals and pricey lodging while partaking of the dollar menu at a fast-food joint and staying at a hotel where the luxuries extend only to thin bars of soap, basic cable, a pen and a Gideon Bible. They can then take the rest of their tax-free per diem and spend it at the racetrack, stash it in a pillowcase or do whatever they want with it.

Vulakovich explained, “There have been too many media reports questioning the integrity of the state’s unvouchered per diem system of reimbursement and thereby questioning the integrity of the user of the system. It’s time we end this practice and make the system more accountable.”

He added, “I want our institution, the General Assembly, to be respected.”

While eliminating per diems won’t win the state House and Senate respect in one fell swoop – both have a ways to go before they become models of unimpeachable integrity and good government – paying lawmakers for their legitimate expenses, and nothing more, would certainly be a step in the right direction.



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