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ICYMI: Salaries just part of Pa. legislators' expenses

Erie Times-News (PA)

April 20 --Lawmakers from northwestern Pennsylvania and the rest of the state are paid more than their counterparts everywhere else except for California .

But the salaries, from $85,339 for rank-and-file lawmakers to as much as $133,219 for presiding officers, are just one part of the bill paid by taxpayers when it comes to Pennsylvania legislative compensation.

As the 203 state House members and 50 state senators struggle to close a $2.3 billion budget deficit in the 2015-16 fiscal year that begins July 1 , the Erie Times-News examined legislative expenses for the Erie region's state lawmakers.

Right-to-Know requests, filed with the House Office of the Comptroller and the Senate Office of the Chief Clerk , showed a total of $1 million in spending for office leases, lodging and meals for the lawmakers and their employees, mileage reimbursements for them and their staff, a car lease payment and related expenses, mailings, office supplies, and miscellaneous costs such as publications and cell-phone bills.

The newspaper examined legislative expenses for two fiscal years.

Click here for a look at expenses of state legislators from the Erie region

Some of the findings

- State Rep. Patrick Harkins , of Erie , D-1st Dist., had the highest overall expenses, totaling $149,759 , for the two-year period. He also had the highest total for mileage reimbursement, $66,797 , and the highest total for per diems, $33,486 . Per diems are daily lodging and food expenses, and lawmakers can keep the difference if their actual costs don't match the per diem rate -- typically $157 or $170 for an overnight stay and meals in Harrisburg , or $52 for meals on a travel day, during the period examined.

Per diem rates are set by the federal government, state House Comptroller Alexis Brown said.

Lawmakers from the region said there's little, if anything, left to pocket. But they don't have to provide receipts to prove where they slept and ate.

They can claim per diems when they travel 50 miles or more to the state capital in Harrisburg or for business in other places such as Philadelphia , Hershey and Pittsburgh . Harrisburg is about 300 miles from Erie .

Harkins, 51, serving his fifth, two-year term, said his travel costs are high because he serves on eight committees. "I want to go to those committee meetings, otherwise you're faulted for not attending and not doing your due diligence," he said.

"I don't stay at a palace. I'm at a Motel 6," he said.

The 113 per diems that he claimed in the 2012-13 year included 26 for committee meetings; the 116 per diems the he claimed in the 2013-14 year included 28 for committee sessions.

His committees include the Democratic House Policy Committee , which holds frequent hearings across the state.

Harkins' spending for office supplies was the lowest -- a total of $1,062 for the two years -- and one of the lowest for newsletters and other mailings, $6,458 . With travel costs high, Harkins said he tries to cut expenses elsewhere.

- State Sen. Sean Wiley , of Millcreek Township , D-49th Dist., had the highest district office lease, totaling $76,258 for a partial 2012-13 year and a full 2013-14 year.

Wiley, 44, whose office is inside renovated space at the Griswold Plaza in downtown Erie , said leases are negotiated by the Senate Office of the Chief Clerk . "We actually just identify a couple of locations. They do a market analysis and they negotiate a rate with the landlord," said Wiley, serving his first, four-year term.

- State Rep. Brad Roae , 48, of East Mead Township, Crawford County , R-6th Dist., had the lowest overall expenses, totaling $71,266 for the two-year period. That includes $13,323 for lodging and meals.

Roae, in his fifth, two-year term, said he doesn't seek a per diem payment until he reaches the allowable claim. He claimed just 37 per diems in the 2012-13 year and 44 in the 2013-14 year.

Former state Rep. Greg Lucas , a Republican who had represented the former 5th Legislative District in western and southern Erie County , said Roae is as frugal with the state's money as he is with his own.

"He is absolutely the cheapest guy I've ever met in my life," said Lucas, 54, of Edinboro , a one-term lawmaker whose district moved to eastern Pennsylvania under redistricting.

During a GOP caucus meeting a couple of years ago, Roae suggested that constituents could stretch their dollar by using a loaf of sliced bread for hot dogs instead of a package of eight hot dog buns. Roae said his family uses a loaf of bread for hot dogs.

A couple of days later, Roae's colleagues placed a package of hot dog buns on his desk on the House floor.

- State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro , of Millcreek Township , D-3rd Dist., and former state Sen. Jane Earll , R- Fairview , who preceded Wiley as 49th District senator, were the only two northwestern Pennsylvania legislators to refuse per diems and claim actual expenses for lodging and meals. Earll, a four-term senator, was included in the analysis for comparison purposes to Wiley, her successor.

Bizzarro's lodging and meal expenses totaled $13,130 for the period, though the first fiscal year was partial because he didn't take office until Dec. 1, 2012 . Lodging and meal expenses for Earll, 56, totaled $21,904 for two fiscal years.

Bizzarro, 29, in his second, two-year term, said he rents a house with two other lawmakers, and his share of the monthly rent is $475 . He said they each sleep on inflatable mattresses, and the house has no television and a lawn chair in the living room.

Bizzarro said he submitted actual expenses for food and lodging as a small way to save money for the state. "Granted, it was not even a drop in the bucket in comparison to the overall budget, but I was just trying to do my part," he said.

However, Bizzarro opted to take the per diem rate this year because he is now vice chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee , which he said requires much more traveling statewide.

Bizzarro said that when he submitted actual expenses to the House Comptroller's Office, he would wait as long as one month or more for reimbursement -- and watch his bank balance drop while he paid his bills, including $700 a month for college loans. Per diem reimbursements typically are made within days, he said.

Even though he's now taking per diems, Bizzarro said he keeps receipts for verification.

- Bizzarro had the highest mailing expenses, $16,352 for the 2013-14 fiscal year for a total of $19,146 . Some of those expenses were for newsletters, which Bizzarro said provides information to constituents about free services and various issues.

Under the spotlight

State legislative costs have been scrutinized for years, but that scrutiny has intensified since July 2005 , when lawmakers granted themselves a pay raise in the middle of the night. That raise temporarily increased lawmakers' salaries by 16 percent to 54 percent, depending on seniority and leadership.

Under public pressure, the lawmakers rescinded that vote four months later, but they now get an annual cost-of-living adjustment each Dec. 1 .

Earll; state Rep. Flo Fabrizio , of Erie , D-2nd Dist.; and Rep. Curt Sonney , of Harborcreek Township , R-4th Dist., all voted against the pay raise in 2005. None of the other current lawmakers from northwestern Pennsylvania were in office at the time.

Eric Epstein , co-founder of Harrisburg -based reform group Rock the Capital, criticized the pay raise and continues to rail against the cost-of-living increases. "They get a stealth pay raise (nearly) every Dec. 1 , regardless of their performance," said Epstein, whose group formed after the 2005 pay raise vote.

Roae, whose district now includes part of western Erie County , has proposed legislation to eliminate COLAs -- along with other reforms that have languished in House committees.

Sonney, 57, in his sixth, two-year term, said he agrees with the COLAs. "I've had zero in a COLA. I've had a half a percent in a COLA. So these increases are not large by any means and not off the mark by any means. And it's very difficult for the Legislature to vote itself an increase in pay, as we all know," Sonney said.

Harkins said he returned the COLAs to the state for the first five or six years, and donated the raise to charity another year.

But Fabrizio said that rank-and-file lawmakers "make less than assistant principals. And we have 13 million people that we're responsible for."

Fabrizio, 70, in his seventh, two-year term, said the legislators are always on the job, either in Harrisburg or at home in their districts.

"I can't walk into a supermarket without being approached by a constituent," he said. But when constituents tell Fabrizio that they hate to bother him, he responds: "You didn't put my name on the ballot. I did. Now how can I help you?"

Fabrizio, who claimed 101 per diems in 2012-13 and 105 in 2013-14 (including a total of 24 for committee hearings or related committee work), said once people hear more about the job, they often "don't think we're overpaid or overperked or whatever you want to call it."

Even so, the base salary for Pennsylvania lawmakers is second only to the base paid to California legislators, who get $90,526 per year along with a session per diem rate of $142 , according to the National Conference of State Legislators , a group that supports state legislatures.

New York state lawmakers received the third-highest base pay, $79,500 with a $172 per diem rate. The figures were from 2014, the latest available from the NCSL.

The NCSL points out that Pennsylvania , California and New York are among a handful of states with full-time lawmakers who spend 80 percent or more of their time on the job and employ large staffs.

Lawmakers from seven other states, including Ohio , are considered full time, too, but they generally spend less time on the job because their sessions aren't as long and their districts are smaller, the NCSL said.

Pennsylvania had the highest number of legislative staff members in the nation -- 2,918, with New York second at 2,676, the NCSL reported, citing figures for both states from 2009, the latest year for which those statistics are available.

But Sonney said lawmakers gradually have reduced the size of their staffs. For the past two terms, he said that freshmen lawmakers have teamed with a senior member -- himself included -- to share the services of a secretary.

As of last week, the state listed a total of 2,428 House and Senate employees, excluding the lawmakers.

Per diem rankings

According to that 2014 NCSL report, Pennsylvania lawmakers had the 14th-highest per diem rate, at $157 . But Rock the Capital, in a February report, said Pennsylvania had climbed to the fifth-highest per diems in the nation, at $185 , when accounting for seasonal summer rates.

A review of records for lawmakers in the Erie region showed few instances of $185 per diems.

Epstein called per diems "self-indulgent gratuities that are abused in many instances and require no accountability. Per diems need to be eliminated and replaced by verifiable documentation of actual expenses."

Epstein said his group is not "philosophically opposed to the concept of reimbursement -- otherwise folks that aren't wealthy or have to travel long distances are at a disadvantage."

But he added, "Most of these expenses lack transparency and accountability, so we need to put a system in place that mimics the private sector."

Terry Madonna , a political-science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster , said that for the most part, lawmakers work hard -- and it's tough for lawmakers from the Erie region who have the longest drive to the capital. "Having said that, it doesn't mean there shouldn't be a more systematic accounting and transparency in the process" for per diems and other expenses, he said.

State Sen. Michele Brooks , of Mercer County , R-50th Dist., who represents part of southern Erie County , said she tries to match her per diems with actual expenses, and doesn't turn in all the per diems that she could. She claimed 55 per diems in the 2012-13 year and 61 per diems in the 2013-14 year.

"I've tried to do my part to try to keep my expenses as low as I could and still live five hours from Harrisburg ," said Brooks, 51, a freshman senator and a northwestern Pennsylvania state representative during the time her expenses were reviewed.

Earll, 56, said she honored a campaign pledge by claiming actual expenses and not per diems. Her expense report lists many meals of just over $4 -- likely a sandwich at Sheetz or soda pop and a bag of chips, she said.

Earll said the argument against charging for actual expenses is that lawmakers could stay in the most expensive hotels and rack up other big charges. "Even though you can claim it, that doesn't mean you should be living high on the hog," she said. "You still have to have some internal moral code or ethics."

Wiley, who agreed with Earll that someone could take advantage of charging high expenses, said the amount is about the same for lawmakers who charge reasonable expenses versus a per diem. "Those of us who live four or five hours away, it's a way to account for the costs of overnight expenses," said Wiley, who claimed 51 per diems in a partial 2012-13 year and 66 in the 2013-14 year.

Roae, who said he keeps his receipts even though he takes the per diem, said lawmakers don't have to spend much on food in Harrisburg . Most hotels include a breakfast meal, and some include dinner buffets, he said.

And lawmakers are invited to breakfast, lunch or dinner meetings paid by lobbyists or interest groups such as the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau or the National Rifle Association , he said.

Harkins said he rarely attends such functions. Harkins said he prefers to eat alone or with colleagues. "Five Guys (Burgers and Fries) and Wendy's is about as extravagant as I get," he said.

Cutting costs

The House budget for the current fiscal year is $164.3 million , and the Senate's is $64.6 million . Gov. Tom Wolf , a Democrat, proposes to increase the budgets for the GOP -controlled chambers to $184.4 million and $96 million , respectively.

Wolf's spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan , said the proposed budget increases would restore funding to the Legislature that had been vetoed by former Gov. Tom Corbett .

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they look for ways to keep expenses in check or reduce them.

But reducing the size of the Legislature and its budget -- an issue that's raised occasionally -- would be a bigger way to shrink costs. However, those movements have never gained much traction in Harrisburg .

Harkins said a smaller Legislature would give lawmakers more territory to cover in their districts, increase fixed costs and leave them less accessible to constituents, he said.

Harkins and Sonney said legislative expenses are less than 1 percent of the state's proposed $29.9 billion budget.

Roae acknowledged that reining in expenses wouldn't make much difference in the budget. "It would be more symbolic than anything. But if we showed that we are reducing our costs, it would kind of lead by example," he said.

Sonney said a constituent has never complained to him about per diems, travel costs and other expenses, which he argued are not "outrageous or abnormal." And he said they have a way to voice the complaint -- at the voting booth, every two years for House members and every four years for senators.

"There's a challenge to being a politician in the fact that your job is always tied to an election," said Sonney, who claimed 70 per diems in 2012-13 and 91 in 2013-14.

The lawmakers representing the Erie region have won re-election with little trouble.

But winning over public opinion arguably is another matter.

"We're not going to win on this one no matter what (we) do. It's about being able to perform the job, and the job requires extensive travel for some of us," Sonney said.

"I think most people understand that there is a cost to doing this business," he said.

JOHN GUERRIERO can be reached at 870-1690 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNguerriero . Read GoErie.com/politics for more political coverage.

Other compensation

- Salaries: $85,339 for rank-and-file lawmakers, which is what the eight legislators representing districts in Erie County receive.

- Health insurance, including dental, vision and prescription drug coverage: Lawmakers pay 1 percent of their salary as a contribution.

- Mileage reimbursement: Lawmakers are reimbursed for driving their own vehicles. The current Internal Revenue Service rate is 57.5 cents per mile, which can be used to cover gasoline, oil changes and other expenses.

- Car lease: Lawmakers have the option of a state-paid lease through the state Department of General Services . Two Erie County lawmakers who previously drove their own vehicles now have state leases: state Sen. Sean Wiley , of Millcreek Township , D-49th Dist., drives a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, at a monthly cost of $669 , and state Rep. Flo Fabrizio , of Erie , D-2nd Dist., drives a 2014 Ford Escape at a monthly cost of $579 . The state pays for gas, repairs, car washes and insurance, but Fabrizio and Wiley said that driving a leased vehicle is cheaper than charging for mileage reimbursement.

- Pensions (for those with at least five years or 10 years of service, depending on their start date): The average annual pension for now-retired state House members is $24,686 ; for now-retired state senators, $38,549 . One retired House member, former Rep. Frank Oliver , D- Philadelphia , receives an annual gross pension of $286,118 , the largest amount of any legislative retiree, but state pension officials called his case an "extreme outlier." He retired at age 89, with nearly 40 years of service in an old and now-closed pension class. The average annual pension for all retired state employees is $26,649 .

- The expenses do not include the salaries and benefits for the 253 state lawmakers' 2,428 employees -- 807 in the Senate and 1,621 in the House.

SOURCES: Pennsylvania PennWatch website; House Office of the Comptroller ; Senate Office of the Chief Clerk ; Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System

Top STATE legislative salaries

- Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati III , R- Jefferson , $133,219

- House Speaker Mike Turzai , R- Allegheny , $133,219

- Senate Majority Floor Leader Jake Corman , R- Centre , $123,645

- Senate Minority Floor Leader Jay Costa , D- Allegheny , $123,645

- House Majority Leader, Dave Reed , R- Indiana , $123,645

- House Minority Leader, Frank Dermody , D- Allegheny , $123,645

Other salaries

- Salaries for lawmakers from northwestern Pennsylvania : $85,339

- Median earnings for full-time male workers, Erie County : $44,114 (as of 2013)

- Median earnings for full-time female workers, Erie County : $32,682 (as of 2013)

SOURCES: Pennsylvania PennWatch website; U.S. Census Bureau


(c)2015 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)

Visit the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.) at www.GoErie.com

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of Kitco Metals Inc. The author has made every effort to ensure accuracy of information provided; however, neither Kitco Metals Inc. nor the author can guarantee such accuracy. This article is strictly for informational purposes only. It is not a solicitation to make any exchange in precious metal products, commodities, securities or other financial instruments. Kitco Metals Inc. and the author of this article do not accept culpability for losses and/ or damages arising from the use of this publication.
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