New Castle News


September 19, 2012

Our Opinion: Per diems for state lawmakers are unseemly

NEW CASTLE — Does it trouble you that a local lawmaker pockets more than $30,000 beyond his salary every year?

That’s the case with state Rep. Chris Sainato, the Lawrence County Democrat who received $31,357 in per diem payments during the course of 2011. According to a recent examination by the New Castle News of per diem payments to local lawmakers, Sainato received the second-highest amount statewide, and easily beat out two other lawmakers representing parts of the county.

State Rep. Jaret Gibbons collected $21,026 in per diems in 2011, while the total for Rep. Michele Brooks was $9,571.

Per diems are lump-sum payments given to cover expenses on a daily basis. In the case of Sainato, his total is for 200 days he was away from home — either in Harrisburg or elsewhere — on legislative business.

Such payments are certainly legal, and they are legitimate in the sense that it costs a considerable amount of money for a Lawrence County lawmaker to travel to and from Harrisburg, as well as stay overnight in that city. Taxpayers ought to pay for reasonable expenses.

But are the expenses reasonable? It’s difficult to quantify that, because per diems require no real documentation.

For 2011, per diems paid to lawmakers were either $160 or $163 per day, depending on what part of the year they were taken. If the expenses of a lawmaker fell short of this amount on a daily basis, he or she was able to pocket the remainder. And if the money is claimed on a day the Legislature officially was in session, these funds are tax exempt.

We understand there is a cost to traveling. And it includes meals out, which are typically more expensive than those eaten at home. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that if taxpayers are footing the bill for meals, lawmakers avoid a routine daily expense most people have to pay on their own.

Sainato attributes the amount of his per diems to the fact he has more seniority than other local lawmakers and has more committee assignments and related responsibilities. Obviously, that is a factor.

However, we couldn’t help but notice that per diem data shows the top payment to a House member in 2011 was more than $39,000, while the biggest amount paid out to a state senator was less than $17,000.

Does this mean House members are more active and more fruitful on the part of taxpayers than their Senate counterparts? Somehow we doubt that.

In The News’ review of per diems for local lawmakers, it was interesting to see that state Sen. Elder Vogel, who is based in Beaver County but represents much of Lawrence County, had no such claims. Instead, Vogel submits his expenses for exact reimbursement.

That’s what all lawmakers should do, in the interest of transparency and accountability. And considering his per diem totals, Sainato should be leading the effort to make that happen.

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