New Castle News

Closer Look

January 17, 2013

Our Opinion: Lawmakers should do away with system that raises suspicions

NEW CASTLE — State Rep. Chris Sainato is again near the top of the list.

But it’s a very dubious achievement in this circumstance.

We referring to per diem receipts, basically the undocumented compensation state lawmakers receive for meals and lodging on days they are working on government business.

While legislators can submit actual expenses for reimbursement, most don’t. Instead, they accept the daily rate of about $160.

And that includes Sainato, who took in $52,278 during the just-ended two-year legislative session. That ranked him third highest in the Legislature in per diem receipts during this time period.

Sainato’s high ranking in per diem expenses is nothing new. Last year, it was noted he was the second-highest in receipts in 2011. So when asked about the matter Monday by the New Castle News, he suggested the two-year data shows somewhat of a decrease in his expenses.

As we have said before, taxpayers should cover the legitimate travel, lodging and related expenses of their elected representatives. The job requires travel to and from Harrisburg and living expenses while there. No one should object to the actual costs.

But we don’t know what those costs are. Per diems may or may not reflect what lawmakers actually spend.

Sainato claims his high per diem rate reflects the amount of legislative sessions and committee hearings he attends around the state. Yet he is not among the upper echelons of legislative leadership. Do the taxpayers receive a benefit from all this travel?

We note that the Pennsylvania Legislature is the body that gave us Bonusgate, a scandal rooted in an arrogant political culture that presumed politicians are above the people. One would expect the lawmakers who experienced Bonusgate firsthand would want to bend over backward and persuade a still-skeptical public they are sensitive to accountability concerns.

Per diems fail in that regard. Instead, as they pile up in uneven fashion, they create questions and raise suspicions. Why would Sainato or any other lawmaker want to put himself through that?

We think Sainato and his fellow legislators need to change this system. Do away with per diems and replace them with a system where specific expenses are submitted. That may create additional paperwork for lawmakers, but it will add a crucial level of transparency to state government.

And absent that, Sainato is free to give up per diems on his own and submit expenses instead. If what’s he collecting is legitimate, he should have no problem with that arrangement.

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