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Time to change per diem rules

April 25, 2006

Oh, those wacky Pennsylvania legislators. If only they were as good at making money for their constituents as they are at making the system work to enhance their own incomes.

Of course, we're not talking about every lawmaker. But judging by what turned up recently in a review of two years' worth of legislators expense records, there must be some changes made.

On Sunday, that newspaper reported that 12 lawmakers collected more in per diem expenses than lawmakers in 28 other states earned in salary alone.

Per diems are flat payments for meals and hotel rooms while on official duty. In addition to their base salary of $72,187, Pennsylvania lawmakers can collect up to $141 per day for meals and longing.

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Is that only while the Pennsylvania Legislature is in session?

Why no, it isn't. According to The Inquirer's report, members can not only get the payment during voting sessions, but also when they're attending committee meetings or just coming to the state capital to work in their offices.

It all amounts to $2.7 million per year, which includes some lawmakers who did very well indeed.

Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, received more than $46,000 in per diems over the past two years, even though he owns a house - free and clear - two blocks from the state capitol building.

Then there is Rep. Gaynor Cawley, D-Lackawanna, who collected $53,030 over two years. During that time, members who are eligible for the full per-diem payment took an average of $24,000.

Some change is needed. Those who are truly on the state's business need to prove it before they collect more of the taxpayers' money.

Otherwise, like those members who collected raises early through "unvouchered expenses," they may begin to see their constituents not as people they serve, but as cash cows.

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