Lawmakers often talk about making government more accountable.
The Pennsylvania Legislature very easily could accomplish that in one move — by doing away with taxpayer-funded per diems. These are reimbursements for lawmakers’ meals and lodging that do not require receipts.
There’s no oversight whatsoever — no way for constituents to know if their representative stayed at the Ritz or the Holiday Inn or whether they ate at a five-star restaurant or Applebee’s.
There’s no way to know even if those expenses actually were incurred.
Lawmakers don’t have to accept per diems. They can submit receipts for expenses they covered while conducting state business, and the government will pay them back.
That’s the sensible way to go about it, and some lawmakers actually do that.
Not enough, though. For fiscal year 2012-13, Pennsylvania paid lawmakers $1.8 million in per diems, but only $200,000 to those who submitted expense receipts.
Given a choice, it seems, most legislators would rather not be bothered with accountability.
Some lawmakers added notes to the public record to explain what their per diems were for — but that’s not the same thing as a receipt. If they’re going to make that effort, why don’t they just save the receipts and submit them for reimbursement? It’s not that hard. Employees in the private sector do that every day.
Imagine if an employee went to her boss and said she’s owed such and such amount, and the boss would just have to trust her on that.
It simply wouldn’t happen.
In a way, the per diems are like the legislators’ annual, automatic cost-of-living raises — they grouse about them in public and go to great lengths to show they’re donating the increases or returning them to the state. But not enough of them can muster the nerve to simply end the practice.
Per diems and COLAs are examples of why Pennsylvania should shrink the size of its Legislature, which the House recently approved.
Besides being more efficient and less expensive, a smaller legislature would make it harder for lawmakers to hide in the crowd when it comes time to do the right thing.
The York Dispatch