The Pennsylvania Constitution keeps it simple: “The members of the General Assembly shall receive such salary and mileage for regular and special sessions as shall be fixed by law, and no other compensation whatever, whether for service upon committee or otherwise.”
The wording on how lawmakers should be compensated has withstood the test of time. Yet the nation’s largest full-time state legislature has found other ways to cash in.
Pennsylvania’s two chambers paid $17 million in tax dollars between 2017 and 2020 for food, mileage, lodging, rented and leased cars, tolls, parking, and gas, according to a first-of-its kind analysis by The Caucus and Spotlight PA of nearly 400,000 transactions.
Those dollars were shelled out merely to underwrite the ability of elected members and staff to come to work, eat, stay there, and return to their homes. In many cases, receipts weren’t even required.
Onetime state Rep. Dan Truitt, a West Chester Republican who during his three terms in office tried to usher in reforms, called it a “system open to abuse.”
“It’s just not right,” Truitt said
The findings are part of a year-long investigation into how lawmakers spend the millions in taxpayer dollars they allot themselves every year. The news organizations, through a series of public records requests, sought information about every legislative expense, over four years, other than salaries and benefits that are among the most generous for state legislatures.
Though the information is public, it is not always transparent. The spending is spread across multiple accounts, making it difficult to build a true picture of how much it costs just to maintain the day-to-day operations of a legislature that showers its elected members with everything from free meals to cars with little to no accountability.
King of the road
Among the largest expenses, according to the analysis, was mileage, with legislators and their staff receiving more than $6.5 million in reimbursements during the four-year time frame examined by the news organizations.
That is on top of $1.2 million for leasing and maintaining a separate fleet of state-owned vehicles that roughly a quarter of the state’s 253 legislators chose to use instead of driving their own car. Monthly leases typically range from $419 to $711 and exclude the cost of maintenance. Popular choices by lawmakers are SUVs such as Ford Explorers and Jeep Cherokee Laredos.
It is also separate from the $1 million the Legislature spent on trains, planes, rental cars, car-sharing services, parking, tolls, and gas.
Though mileage reimbursements are a standard business practice, what is less common is paying the majority of the 253-member-strong Legislature just to commute. And not just to commute to Harrisburg for voting sessions — as the state constitution lays out — but to drive to any hearing, ceremony, tour or other event around the state.
For some lawmakers, that has translated into tens of thousands of extra dollars every year.
Take Rep. Patrick Harkins, a Democrat from Erie. He received the most in mileage reimbursements over the four-year period examined by the news organizations: $120,103.46.
Though Harkins’ Republican colleague from Erie, Curtis Sonney, was second on the list, he only took in close to half of what Harkins did, despite the fact that the two lawmakers travel nearly identical distances to get to and from the Capitol.
And Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, another Erie Democrat, collected even less in mileage: $30,911.
In an interview, Harkins noted that, at 330 miles each way, he lives farther from Harrisburg than any of his colleagues — although only by a single mile more than Bizzarro. His commute begins from the shores of Lake Erie and can take anywhere from six to eight hours to reach the Capitol. In any given year, he said, he puts 55,000 to 60,000 miles on his Dodge Durango.
Even at the full federal reimbursement rate, the mileage dollars don’t make him extra money, he said. His car requires monthly oil changes. Tires wear out quickly, and windshields need to be replaced, he said.
Harkins used to lease a state-owned vehicle, which a Caucus and Spotlight PA analysis showed is more cost-effective for taxpayers than mileage reimbursement when lawmakers drive long distances. But the Democratic legislator said it needed frequent repairs, the costs of which are covered by the state.
“The options weren’t very good,” said Harkins, a onetime UPS driver. “The air conditioning broke and the radio only worked some of the time. I’d drive with the windows down.”
Harkins’ mileage reimbursements were higher than other Erie colleagues because, records show, he crisscrossed the state far more. Much of that was to attend multiple hearings held by the House Democrats’ policy committee.
Both parties in the Legislature have such panels. But unlike traditional legislative committees, which meet primarily in Harrisburg and vote on bills, they have little power: they hold nonvoting meetings across the state, usually when the Legislature isn’t in session, to consider issues important to their voting base.
Records show Harkins was reimbursed $13,739 for 75 such hearings from 2017 through last year. He also continued to attend voting sessions and other meetings in person after the first cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in Pennsylvania, forcing a statewide shutdown and leading many legislators to opt for remote voting. He collected more than $20,900 in mileage reimbursements from April through December last year.
Harkins acknowledged a leased car may be cheaper, but said he has no interest in returning to the program, which among other restrictions bars anyone other than the legislator from driving the car.
Though leasing state cars can be more cost-effective for certain legislators, it also can carry a political stigma, said Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny. Her constituents made it clear “they don’t like seeing [legislators] driving a state car,” she said.
So she doesn’t.
A bill by Rep. Brad Roae, R-Meadville, to ban car leases for legislators sailed through the House State Government Committee in March but it was shelved by GOP leaders.
“There is no valid reason to have taxpayers buy cars for legislators,” Roae said in a memo seeking co-sponsors.
Still, Roae, who lives 240 miles from the Capitol, collected $30,253 for mileage between 2017 and 2020 — essentially the same amount of money taxpayers spent during the same time period to lease vehicles for most lawmakers who requested one.
With every visit to the Capitol or other parts of the state on business, lawmakers don’t just collect mileage.
They are allowed to request a flat dollar amount in reimbursement for food, lodging, or both.
The payments, known as per diems, have long been in the crosshairs of good government advocates, who believe they are an anachronism that is ripe for abuse. Legislators aren’t required to submit actual receipts for per diems, leaving open the possibility that they are getting reimbursed for more than what they actually spend while away from their districts.
Advocates also argue that per diems don’t comport with reality when legislators are in Harrisburg, where lobbyists and campaign committees frequently pick up the tab for lunch and dinner. Legislative leaders and committee chairs sometimes provide catered meals during busy voting days.
In all, the Legislature spent nearly $6.3 million in taxpayer dollars to reimburse lawmakers for per diems between 2017 and 2020 between 2017 and 2020, expense records show.
Even so, that didn’t obviate their food needs.
The Legislature spent an additional $1.8 million on food and drinks for lawmakers and their staff in the form of direct reimbursements to cover everything from $1 cups of coffee at rest stops on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, to $50 dinners in Harrisburg, to $2,500 catered events with constituents.
The different forms of reimbursement make it possible for lawmakers to eat most meals for free if they want to, especially during weeks they’re in session.
Take, for example, the first day in a three-day voting week House members had in Harrisburg on September 15 of last year.
Six different groups of House Republicans incurred meal costs on that day for a total of $1,728, records show.
Republican Policy Committee members met over a $514 luncheon. Deputy whips, a more junior-level leadership role, spent $217 at Chick-fil-A. A “business meal” for the House Republican Caucus cost $198. And members of three committees that did not have official meetings that day — Health, Judiciary, and Finance — met over $210 to $317 meals to discuss legislation and upcoming committee business.
Yet on that same day, seven individual House Republican members were reimbursed for meals, and another 44 received larger flat-rate per diems that theoretically also cover food costs. It’s unclear from the expense reports, which often lack detail, who attended the catered meetings and whether there were some legislators who ate at those meetings while also collecting per diems or other meal reimbursements.
At the same time, the Legislature spends tens of thousands every year on snacks, coffee, soda, or other food purchases for lawmakers’ Harrisburg and district offices. Those costs, however, come out of taxpayer-funded accounts controlled by legislative leaders and chief clerks, shielding the true cost of meals for a given lawmaker.
During the four-year period, the House Democratic Caucus reported roughly 50 large expenses totaling $76,201 for “refreshments,” though they don’t specify which lawmakers benefited from them. Expenses that included just coffee, K-cups, creamer and sugar over the same period reached more than $142,300.
Similar purchases are listed only as “consumable supplies” on expense reports. The receipt for one such expense, a $413 purchase by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa in June 2019, shows multiple 24-packs of different kinds of Coke and Snapple, 10 packs of 40 bottles of water, nuts, party mix, cheese balls, and — in a nod to factions in the provincial Pennsylvania potato chip wars — chips from Middleswarth, Martin’s and Utz.
The vendor: Breski Beverage, a Harrisburg-based distributor owned by another lawmaker, Republican Rep. Tom Mehaffie of Dauphin County.
Such purchases put legislative leaders and chairs of highly active legislative committees, such as Appropriations, at the top of the list when it came to food expenses. But a handful of rank-and-file members also were reimbursed for upwards of $15,000 each for food from 2017 to 2020.
Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny, for instance, charged nearly $29,000 for meals ranging from dinners with legislative staff or constituents to expos and other gatherings in his district.
Former Sen. John Blake of Lackawanna County spent just under $25,400, records show. The Democrat also submitted for $19,147 in per diems during that time frame, often to cover both his food and lodging.
Still, Blake’s per diem reimbursements are eclipsed by many of his colleagues, five of whom received more than $85,000 each over the four-year period — or an average of more than $20,000 annually.
Among them was Sen. Pat Browne, a Republican from Lehigh County who chairs the chamber’s Appropriations Committee. At fourth on the list, he received just under $86,000, according to expense records.
State Rep. Tom Caltagirone wasn’t far behind. The Democrat from Reading, who retired last year after 44 years in office, collected $85,193 in per diem reimbursements over four years — $24,256 of that in 2020. Though Reading is just over 60 miles from the Capitol, Caltagirone sometimes traveled to Harrisburg the night before a voting session, which allowed him to collect additional per diems, albeit at a reduced rate.
Topping the list though was another Capitol veteran: state Rep. Chris Sainato, a Democrat from Lawrence County in Western Pennsylvania who has served for 26 years.
His per diem reimbursements over the four-year period: $120,103.
About this series
Spotlight PA is a non-profit investigative newsroom based in Harrisburg. The Caucus is LNP Media Group's publication covering the state Capitol and lawmakers.