Geist, Wozniak top per diem list

Nearly $4 million in overnight travel and food expenses were collected by Pennsylvania lawmakers during the 2011-212 legislative session.

Area lawmakers, including former state Rep. Richard Geist, R-Altoona, and state Sen. John N. Wozniak, D-Cambria, topped the lists of legislators who collected the most in per diem food and lodging expenses, according to information published Sunday in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Legislators said the per diem expenses and mileage reimbursements are a constitutionally protected part of their job.

“I think most jobs, whether they be private or public sector, require travel expenses,” said Sen. Jake Corman.

When work-related and properly documented, per diem and travel expenses are acceptable for lawmakers, Corman, R-Centre, said.

The IRS sets the overnight rates in each city and mileage reimbursements for legislators, Corman said. Lawmakers are held accountable because their specific reimbursement totals are available as public record, Corman said.

The current IRS mileage reimbursement rate is set at 56.5 cents per mile.

Wozniak ranked third with $25,813 on a list of state senators who collected per diem expenses during the 2011-12 session, according to the Tribune-Review. Wozniak could not be reached for comment.

Geist collected $48,122 during the same period.

Those numbers are in addition to the $83,802 base salary and health care, dental and vision insurance collected by lawmakers.

Lawmakers are advised to take the IRS-regulated per diem rates because they are universal rates, Geist said when reached for comment Wednesday.

“It’s part of the compensation package,” Geist said.

A former member of the House Transportation, Rules and Commerce committees, Geist said per diems are a way for legislators to cover their expenses while traveling in the service of various committees.

“I know the amount of time and effort I had to commit,” he said.

Lawmakers are held accountable by signing verifiable affidavit papers which affirm their travel and eating expenses, he said.

Some legislators, including Rep. John McGinnis and Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., said they planned to rein in per diems.

Eichelberger, R-Blair, who is eligible to collect $6,117 in travel reimbursements and $9,381 in per diem expenses, said he would not collect those totals.

Eichelberger could not be reached for comment.

McGinnis said apart from lodging expenses, per diems should be eliminated.

“I’d be 100 percent in favor of eliminating them entirely, and that might happen,” McGinnis said.

The per diem system is an undocumented system “ripe” for the taking, McGinnis said.

McGinnis said he saves records such as hotel receipts and turns them in for reimbursement. Without a physical record of expenses, legislators could claim certain expenses and pocket the difference, he said.

“Nobody knows what the expenses are and that’s not right,” he said.

Others argued the cost of travel between their districts and the state capital make reimbursements a necessity.

“It’s part of the job,” state Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Patton, said.

The varying degrees of per diem totals should be assessed on an individual basis, Haluska said.

Senior legislators tasked with multiple committee roles may collect larger figures when compared to other representatives, he said.

“They’ll end up with more per diems, but they’re traveling to Erie, Philadelphia, Scranton or wherever the hearings are held,” Haluska said.

Lawmakers must stay overnight to be eligible for the travel stipend, said Tor Michaels, spokesman for state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Philipsburg.

The IRS determined overnight stays in Harrisburg equate to about $160 a night, and the average per diem rate for lodging in Philadelphia equates to about $230 or $240, he said.

A member of the Appropriations committee, Conklin does collect lodging and mileage reimbursements, Michaels said.

Other programs are more costly than reimbursements, some lawmakers said.

Elimination of the state’s vehicle fleet was more damaging and costly to taxpayers than per diems, Haluska said.

The fleet lease program, where state officials and lawmakers could lease a state-owned vehicle, was the most economic option when compared to mileage reimbursements, Haluska said.

Gov. Tom Corbett made trimming the state’s vehicle fleet a priority during his campaign, Department of General Services spokesman Troy Thompson.

The department slashed about 1,600 vehicles from its inventory in the last two years, Thompson said.

Many lawmakers – Haluska and Conklin included – travel in their own vehicles.

Although lawmakers are entitled to compensation, the requirements to collect per diem expenses could be “tightened,” Rep. Jerry Stern said.

The law could be changed to not allow legislators to collect lodging expense incured on the weekends or when the house is not in session, Stern, R-Martinsburg, said.

But compensation, when properly documented, would remain a necessity for many lawmakers, he said.

“Some people who go to Harrisburg don’t have the material wealth to survive and maintain a residence,” Stern said.