BY KAREN SHUEY, Staff Writer
When it comes to getting expenses reimbursed, Pennsylvania's legislators play by different rules than almost everyone else.
Most employees need to file a receipt with their employer to explain a business-related expense.
A state legislator does not.
A bill, introduced to the Legislature last month, could change that.
The legislation would scrap per diems -- the guaranteed payment lawmakers receive for days they're in Harrisburg or attending a committee meeting elsewhere in the state.
Most lawmakers representing Lancaster County voters already shun the practice, instead opting for their travel, food and lodging expenses to be reimbursed with the proof of a receipt.
The cash they are reimbursed is in addition to their salary, which is $83,802 for rank-and-file members.
A review of local legislators' 2012 expenses shows that only one legislator -- state Rep. Mike Sturla -- collected per diems.
Of Lancaster's delegation, Sturla requested the most reimbursement -- $15,812. He received $5,152 in per diems, as well as $8,477 for mileage, tolls and public transportation on voting session days.
"Per diems are part of the job," he said. "If the system is changed, I'll play by whatever the rules are."
Sturla also pointed out that he is the only local lawmaker in party leadership. As a member of the House Democratic Caucus, he said, he must attend meetings that sometimes take place outside Harrisburg.
The most costly example was a trip to the National Conference of State Legislatures Summit in Chicago last August. Sturla billed taxpayers $968 in non-session per diems for four days, $536 for airfare and transportation costs, $130 for meals and $69 for parking. The entire trip ended up costing taxpayers $1,703.
"You can really learn a lot by talking to people one-on-one," he said. "The exchange of ideas is very important as a lawmaker."
The Lancaster city Democrat said he believes the per diem practice is fair, not abused and actually saves taxpayers money.
He said the additional costs incurred to hire more staffers to comb through receipts and requests for reimbursements would outweigh any savings of issuing only receipt-proven expenses.
"I take such a minuscule amount of money; my expenses are really some of the lowest in the state," he said.
Because legislative expenses are not available without filing a Right to Know request for each member of the Legislature, it is difficult to back up Sturla's claim.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently published an article revealing that the top-10 per diem takers in the state ranged from $55,495 to $40,073.
Comparisons can be unfair, though.
Some legislators live five or six hours by vehicle from Harrisburg. Some must attend committee hearings in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, requiring an overnight stay where costs are higher.
While Sens. Mike Brubaker and Lloyd Smucker don't collect per diems, they did seek reimbursement for sizable bills last year.
The two Republican lawmakers say that, like executives in private industry, they are entitled to have their food and travel costs paid by their employers, who, in this case, are taxpayers.
"I was in the private sector for 25 years, and I knew that if I sent someone to do business somewhere I would expect that cost as part of running a business," Brubaker said.
Brubaker charged taxpayers $6,819 for travel costs and $3,232 for business meals. Smucker claimed $4,962 for travel and $2,255 for meals, as well as $399 for cellphone use.
Both said they occasionally pick up the tab when they dine with another lawmaker or constituent for lunch or dinner to discuss policy.
"I only take what would be reasonable to take at any other job I would have in the private sector," Smucker said, adding that receipts should be required.
Sen. Mike Folmer thinks any reimbursement is too much.
The Lebanon Republican, who represents the northwestern part of Lancaster County, said he has never filed for reimbursement in the six years he has been in office.
"I don't think I'm entitled to collect anything based on my interpretation of the state constitution," he said.
Folmer points to a constitutional provision that reads, "No member of either House shall during the term for which he may have been elected, receive any increase of salary or mileage, under any law passed during such term."
"Lawmakers work for the people -- how many employees get to tell their employer what they should be getting for doing their job?" Folmer asked.
It's clear members of the Legislature, here and across the state, are divided in terms of discretionary spending.
Legislation to end the per diems practice was introduced by West Chester Republican Rep. Dan Truitt, who said per diems can make lawmakers look bad.
Based on the number of Right to Know requests filed for information on the payments, it seems obvious "the public has a dim view of per diems and suspects legislators are profiting from them," he told colleagues in a memo seeking co-sponsors.
Gov. Tom Corbett's administration recently established PennWATCH (pennwatch.pa.gov), a website that allows visitors to track agencies, salaries, employees and budget information. However, it doesn't list legislative expenses.
While some lawmakers post their expenses online, it isn't mandatory.
Locally, Reps. Ryan Aument, Bryan Cutler, Gordon Denlinger and Dave Hickernell put their monthly expenses on their websites.
Denlinger and Hickernell filed for reimbursements, but only for certain aspects of the job.
Denlinger claims mileage reimbursement for his drive to and from the Capitol and in his northeast county district. That was $6,430 for the year.
At one time in his tenure as a representative, the Narvon Republican had claimed per diems and other perks.
"It's important that we are careful with taxpayer money, and I feel now that what I take represents my limited view on spending." he said.
Hickernell, who collects $65 a month ($780 a year) to pay for the data plan on his Blackberry, said he started filing for reimbursement after upgrading to a smartphone.
"I use (the Blackberry) exclusively to send and look at emails that have to do with my job," he said.
The West Donegal Republican said the device makes him a more efficient lawmaker and increases his ability to communicate with his constituents.
Cutler and Aument have pledged they will refuse per diems and rarely accept reimbursements.
The Republican lawmakers may file for reimbursement based on receipts, but only when they find themselves traveling outside the Harrisburg-Lancaster region.
In 2012, Aument accepted $10.53 to pay for a meal while attending a committee meeting in Philadelphia, and Cutler didn't claim a cent.
Rounding out the Lancaster County delegation are Reps. Mindy Fee, Keith Greiner and Steven Mentzer, who took office last month.
The Republicans said that when their monthly expenses become available, they will post them on their websites.
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