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September 12, 2013

Your Tax Money: Vogel shuns per diem system, while Sainato, Gibbons continue on

HARRISBURG — Sen. Elder Vogel billed $3,587 for meal spending, Harrisburg lodging and business travel for the first half of 2013.

But, the state senator's reimbursements, paid by the taxpayers, were only half the amount he could have claimed if he had not turned in his receipts and simply filed a claim under the General Assembly's per diem system for reimbursing members.

Vogel pays $70 a night at the Radisson in Camp Hill.

“That’s the legislative rate,” he said. “There are quite a few House members and a couple senators who stay there.”

The senator, whose territory lies in Beaver and Lawrence counties, is one of 21 state senators who spurn the use of per diems, which allow lawmakers to claim as much as $185 a day for lodging and meals without requiring documentation of how much lawmakers actually spent.

Taxpayers paid $172,598 in per diem payments to state senators in the first half of the year, an average of $8,218 per senator who used the system.

Only six of the 153 members of the state House decline to participate in the per diem system.

Thus far in 2013, the state has paid more than $1.1 million to House members for unvouchered meal and lodging expenses, an average of just more than $7,500 per member who filed claims through the per diem system.

Some of the highest totals went to lawmakers who are active members of legislative and policy committees, including several western Pennsylvania Democats.

Reps. Chris Sainato and Jaret Gibbons, both of Lawrence County, Mark Longietti of Mercer County and  Frank Burns of Cambria County are all members of a House Democratic policy committee that travels the state conducting hearings on political issues. All of those lawmakers claimed more than the average amount of unvouchered expenses.

“Being in the minority, we don’t set the agenda,” Sainato. The policy committee provides the lawmakers with an opportunity to explore and bring issues to light in an attempt to influence the agenda, though. The committee held hearings on Medicaid expansion, liquor privatization and others issues.

Sainato was reached Tuesday in Philadelphia where the policy committee was holding a public hearing on education funding.

He said the expenses reflect how much time some lawmakers spend in Harrisburg and traveling the state.

“People think we work 60 days a year because we may only be in session 60 days a year,” Sainato said.

But not all lawmakers agree that elected officials should be billing taxpayers for all the time they spend in Harrisburg.

State Rep. Brad Roae of Crawford County has introduced a bill that would crack down on loopholes on things such as lawmakers claiming expenses for visiting the Capitol when it’s closed or attending only a few minutes of a committee meeting.

“A complete elimination of per diems by switching to receipt-based reimbursements would be great, but the votes are not there,” Roae said. “The votes are not even there yet for my limited proposal.”

Vogel agreed  there is little traction for reform because so many lawmakers are content to pocket the difference between what they spend and what they can claim in unvouchered expenses.

Sainato said he opposes moves that would require lawmakers to provide receipts for lodging and meal expenses. He said he could have 200 claims a year, and tracking all those receipts would be a nightmare.

“That would (involve) a lot of paperwork,” he said.

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