EDITORIAL: Rein in Pa. legislative per diems

York Dispatch editorial board
FILE - This Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, file photo shows the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

For a gang that could hardly be more flinty when discussion turns to raising the state’s paltry minimum wage, Pennsylvania’s state lawmakers have few qualms about padding their own accounts — at state taxpayer expense, no less.

The country’s largest full-time legislature, whose members’ $88,000-a-year salaries are the third-highest salaries in the nation, pads its coffers through an additional measure that’s largely unavailable to Joe and Jane Public: per diems.

These daily reimbursements — a generous $178 on days legislators are conducting state business more than 50 miles from home — are not only exorbitant, they’re poorly monitored. Receipts? State lawmakers don’t need no steenkin’ receipts! They simply apply for reimbursement.

And did they ever apply in 2020. According to an investigation by Spotlight PA, legislators raked in nearly three-quarters of a million dollars between the pandemic-induced shutdown last March and the end of the year. This despite the fact both state houses conducted much of their business remotely and per diems are customarily used for expenses incurred when lawmakers travel on state business. (This doesn’t include mileage, by the way: there’s a separate 58-cent-per-mile reimbursement for that.)

Nearly 20 state lawmakers padded their incomes by more than $10,000 last year through this perk. And while this legal syphoning of state resources is one of the few bipartisan practices in Harrisburg, Democrats proved particularly adept at it. A pair of Democratic House members — Mark Longietti of Mercer County and Christopher Sainato of Lawrence County — collected more than $24,000 apiece.

Unseemly at any time, the practice is particularly selfish coming at a time when the majority of state residents were forced to tighten belts and otherwise sacrifice during a pandemic that shuttered businesses, erased jobs, and stagnated economic activity.

The optics weren’t lost on everyone in the state Capitol. A quartet of Democratic state senators, including three from Central Pennsylvania, introduced a bill last summer urging colleagues to suspend per diem benefits for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.

“At a time when more than one million Pennsylvanians are unemployed, state lawmakers should be setting an example by suspending per diems,” said one of the four, state Sen. Tim Kearny of Delaware County.

State lawmakers, it will come as no surprise, were not interested in any example setting.

The refusal to reconsider the use — and, potentially abuse; without any meaningful transparency, who knows? — of per diems is infuriating. Legislative efforts to reform or even curtail the practice over the years have been consistently ignored.

The public deserves better.

At the very least, legitimate accountability must be incorporated into the process. Perhaps it’s possible to amass tens of thousands of dollars in expenses at a time when state business is being conducted largely remotely and restaurants and hotels are operating on a limited basis. But no business owner worth his or her salt would sign that reimbursement check without asking for receipts. Why must Pennsylvania’s taxpayers be forced to do so?

Transparency begets accountability, and accountability begets responsibility. Pennsylvania’s legislative per diem system could use healthy doses of both if taxpayers are going to feel confident that hundreds of thousands of their dollars each year are going toward the legitimate support of state business and not into the wallets of lawmakers who already lead much of the nation in legislative largesse.