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Monitoring legislators’ per-diems

Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA reported two stories recently that detailed how Pennsylvania state lawmakers, led by House Democrats, “banked hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional taxpayer money for meals and lodging while on official business” in 2020 by availing themselves of a perk called “per diems.”

The story described retreats that Republican state lawmakers have planned at a resort in the Laurel Highlands in Fayette County.

Over the course of a year marked by surreal and distressing disruption, one thing didn’t change: the inclination of too many state lawmakers to feast on the public dime.

We’ve blasted per diem payments to lawmakers repeatedly.

Last April — urging legislators to tighten their belts during the pandemic — we decried the fact that they still could claim $178 in expenses (without providing receipts) for every session day they traveled more than 50 miles from their homes for legislative business. This was at a time when most state government offices were closed.

And when both chambers of the Legislature had passed temporary rules allowing lawmakers to meet and vote remotely.

Per diem payments are the icing on an already generous cake: A rank-and-file lawmaker’s base salary in 2020 exceeded $90,000. Those in leadership positions make tens of thousands of dollars more.

As Spotlight PA noted, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is the largest full-time legislature in the country and pays the third-highest state lawmaker salaries.

Per diems are questionable in an ordinary year. But to claim per diems during a pandemic, when so many Pennsylvanians have struggled merely to get by, strikes us as shameful.

Democrats made the top five largest per diem claims.

At the top of the heap was state Rep. Mark Longietti, of Mercer County, who claimed a whopping $24,115 in per diem payments. He was followed on the list by four other Democrats who claimed between $18,901 and $24,073.

State Sen. Pat Browne, of Lehigh County, claimed the most of any Republican: $16,157.

No Republican Lancaster County state lawmakers appear on the list except for Rep. Jim Cox, who serves parts of both Lancaster and Berks counties. He claimed $2,105 in per diem payments.

The absence of other Lancaster County Republicans from the list — and kudos to them — may be partly explained by the county’s proximity to Harrisburg, though per diems also may be collected at varying rates to stay overnight, say in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, for a committee hearing.

State Rep. Mike Sturla, the lone Democratic lawmaker from Lancaster County, claimed $920.

We’re mystified as to how one even manages to spend more than $24,000 in per diems during a pandemic when restaurant dining was a challenge, lodging rates were reduced, and lawmakers had the option to meet virtually.

And yet a Spotlight PA analysis of legislative records “found lawmakers requested and received $726,877 from the beginning of March — as the pandemic emerged — through the end of 2020 as reimbursement for lodging and meals while traveling to and from the Capitol or other meetings across the state.”

Remember this when a state lawmaker says state government cannot afford to help people in need or fund schools fairly or fix roads and bridges.

Which brings us to the subject of the retreats that state Republican lawmakers have planned for this spring at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort — also the site of the 25th and most recent season of ABC’s “The Bachelor.”

According to Spotlight PA, the cost of such legislative retreats can be covered using campaign funds, rather than taxpayer money.

Nevertheless, as one Republican lawmaker told Spotlight PA, “It’s not a good look.”

Perhaps the spirits of struggling Pennsylvanians will be brightened knowing that their lawmakers are staying at a resort where single rooms, according to an email obtained by Spotlight PA, will be priced at $600 a night.

Maybe lawmakers will stay in “The Chateau” at Nemacolin, whose webpage literally reads: “Let them eat cake.”

Or in the “bespoke oasis” that is Falling Rock, “Luxe leisure inspired by the renowned architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Among the many experiences offered by the Nemacolin are indoor ax throwing (we guess it’s a good thing Democrats aren’t invited); outdoor sculpture tours; Jeep off-roading; safari tours; and seasonal rides on a classic carousel (an apt metaphor for the Legislature, which goes round and round, getting nowhere).

Lawmakers ought to exhibit some sensitivity toward their constituents — if not all the time, then at least during this pandemic, a difficult time for so many Pennsylvanians.

We’d all love to retreat to a swanky resort in the Laurel Highlands, or claim hefty per diems on top of generous taxpayer-funded salaries. But most of us live in the real world.

Lawmakers should join us here.

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