Pa. lawmakers cashing in on per diems - abc27 WHTM

Pa. lawmakers cashing in on per diems

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It's more money than many Pennsylvanians make in a year, it's tax free, and some lawmakers are getting it on top of their $82,000 a year base salary.

They're called per diems; extra money for food and lodging that legislators can collect if they spend a night away from home on official business.

Most of the year, lawmakers can collect $163 a day; $185 in summer months. It's an IRS formula and the concept is to pay a fair amount without requiring receipts. The theory is maybe they spent more, maybe they spent less, but they'll accept the per diem rate and not have to show receipts for it.

Critics insist most lawmakers don't actually spend that amount and merely pocket the extra, tax-free income.

"They should be just like everybody else in the business world," said Tim Potts of Democracy Rising Pa. "You have to document your expenses and if you can't you don't get reimbursed. That's not hard."

But longtime House Republican Rick Geist disagrees.

"Are they legit? Yeah, because the IRS says this is a way of doing it so you don't have to do itemization," Geist said.

Geist was one of the top per diem takers in 2011, according to analysis compiled and recently released by Rock the Capital, a government watchdog group. At $25,253.16, Geist was fifth overall and the top Republican.

Geist says he's the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and on numerous boards and commissions, which requires a lot of travel, a lot of work, and consequently a lot of per diems.

"This is all part of the compensation package. If and when the General Assembly wants to change that compensation package they can," he said.

The per diem king is Philadelphia Democrat Mark Cohen. According to Rock the Capital, he collected $39,222.75 in 2011.

I wanted to ask why so much? I wanted to ask why is he annually among the top per diem collectors in the Legislature? I wanted to ask why is he collecting substantially more than every other Philadelphia lawmaker who is presumably driving the same distance at the same times?

But Cohen refused comment by phone this week, as he did on camera last year when asked about the same topic.

I did find Cohen's chief of staff at the lawmaker's Harrisburg office. He, too, refused an on-camera interview about per diems but did tell me, "Mark's here a lot. The expenses are legit. But you can draw your own conclusions."

Critics are certainly doing just that.

"How does Mark Cohen get 39-grand in per diems?" asked Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital. "How does that happen?"

"The thing that really frosts me, it's tax free," Potts said. "Mark Cohen gets $39,000 extra, pays nothing in taxes on it. Give me a break."

You won't find many midstate lawmakers on the list, and if you do they haven't collected much. That's because per diems are for legislators outside 50 miles of Harrisburg.

You can see who collected what in the House and Senate




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