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October 11, 2012 | By | Posted in Investigations, Legislature

Reimbursed lawmakers immune to turnpike toll hikes

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

NO TOLL: Lawmakers get reimbursed for Pennsylvania Turnpike polls, which are expected to increase next year for the fifth consecutive time.

HARRISBURG — As Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls continue to rise, lawmakers won’t necessarily feel the same pinch, because taxpayers cover that expense.

Much like workers in the private sector, lawmakers get reimbursed for mileage and other expenses from work-related travel. In 2011, dozens of state House lawmakers were reimbursed for more than 3,600 parking and toll transactions.

The price tag was more than $111,000.

At least 450 of those reimbursements were directly related to more than $9,800 in Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, according to expense records. But the exact amount of turnpike toll reimbursements could be higher — around $60,200 was not specifically categorized and listed under “Parking and Tolls.” Per the state constitution, mileage is a legal part of compensation.

But the give-and-take of toll increases and reimbursements gets fuzzy when consideration is given to the recent history of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, and the laws that have triggered a new wave of spending and toll increases.

To date, the turnpike is more than $7 billion in debt. In 2007, the turnpike began paying out $450 million a year to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in accordance with state Act 44.

Act 44 ballooned the commission’s debt. Since then, the commission has raised tolls on Pennsylvania travelers five times, including the increase set to take place in January 2013.

Nathan Benefield, director for policy analysis for the free market think tank Commonwealth Foundation, said reimbursements aren’t bad policy, but they may obscure the situation.

“The turnpike is going deeper and deeper into debt, tolls go up year after year,” he said. “People who are voting on it, it’s not really hitting them in the pocket the way the motorist or truck driver is being hit.”

The Pennsylvania Turnpike is on pace to be the most expensive toll road in the country by next year, according to analysis by Auditor General Jack Wagner.

“That debt is guaranteed to be paid, if not by the turnpike, by the taxpayers of Pennsylvania,” Wagner said, following testimony at a recent joint hearing of the Senate and House Transportation Committees.

At that same meeting, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission then-CEO Roger Nutt testified that the commission is in a healthy financial place. It’s able to meet its obligations, Nutt said, and sends its plans on how it will meet its obligations to the Secretary of the Budget each year since Act 44 was passed.

“We have been clear in public statements that the (toll) increases will be implemented annually to cover the debt-service cost of the payments to PennDOT,” said Nutt, according to his testimony.

Nutt handed in his resignation this week, citing health reasons.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said he does not agree with the use of turnpike tolls for non-related expenditures. But he said he did not think reimbursements affect how lawmakers may vote on turnpike issues — and they don’t vote on toll increases, which are up the commission.

Vitali, one of many lawmakers traveling from far corners of the state to Harrisburg, said he could end up driving around 600 miles on the turnpike in a typical session week.

The reimbursements are “a cost of doing business” on par with those in the private sector, he said, with little to connect them to the financial issues members may consider.

“In interacting with other members when turnpike issues come to the floor, in caucusing and in personal contact, my sense is there’s no relation between the two,” he said.

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Melissa Daniels is a reporter for PA Independent. She can be reached at 717-350-0962 or Melissa@PAIndependent.com

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