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Pennsylvania covers lawmakers’ expenses – but doesn’t ask for a receipt

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(The Center Square) — Pennsylvania’s legislators have one of the highest salaries in the nation, and generous reimbursement rules for expenses can send more taxpayer money into their pockets.

A proposed bill could change those rules, however, limiting the checks to cover only costs that lawmakers actually paid.

House Bill 1344, sponsored by Rep. Brett Miller, R-Columbia, would abolish per-diem reimbursements and require legislators to provide receipts instead.

“Only actual expenses shall be reimbursable to an individual member upon the receipt of documentation of the expense,” the bill’s text reads.

The change would limit some instances of double-dipping.

“There are many people who, for instance, will submit for the per diem who will go out for dinner at a lobbyists’ dime – and yet they’ll collect the per diem as if they incurred that expense,” Miller said. “Same with hotels.”

The practice isn’t a rare one.

A 2021 investigation by Spotlight PA and The Caucus found that the Pennsylvania legislature spent more than $200 million from 2017-2020 for food, housing, transportation, and office rent. Of that total, $20 million “went directly into lawmakers’ pockets.”

Tracking that money, and how it’s spent, isn’t always easy. And a per diem payment, which is a flat rate and doesn’t require any proof of purchase, makes the spending trail harder to follow.

“The motivation is accountability for the public to see what the expenses actually are,” Miller said. “I believe the taxpayers would want to know that they are not paying more than the expenses actually show.”

Abolishing the per diem could save taxpayers a significant amount of money for two reasons: legislators could only get reimbursed for money they actually spent, and it would curtail Pennsylvania’s generous rate. Delaware, Ohio, and New Jersey don’t pay lawmakers a per diem at all, and Pennsylvania’s $178 daily rate (though it can differ) beats all its neighbors.

HB 1344 isn’t the first attempt to rein in reimbursements. A similar bill was introduced during the last session and failed to advance. For now, it awaits action in the House Rules Committee.

Some legislators don’t use per diems on principle.

Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon, posts his monthly expense reports online and explicitly says he doesn’t take per diems.

“Instead of taking per diems, Rep. Miller submits actual receipts for approved expenses, which are capped daily at $117 for lodging and $64 for food,” his website states. “These receipts are submitted per House Rules and are available in full from the Chief Clerk’s Office.”

That sort of disclosure, however, is optional. Some legislators don’t post expense reports on their websites at all, while others post them with more or less detail.

Rep. Brett Miller also posts his expenses, but with less detail than Rep. Dan Miller. More transparency, and the verification of the actual costs for the business of governance, isn’t a heavy lift, he argued.

“Modern technology makes the requirement of submitting receipts a miniscule burden – a burden worth the cost of restoring the public’s trust in the General Assembly’s handling of its financial affairs,” Miller wrote in a legislative memo.

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