By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Taxpayers gave a nice parting gift to five former members of the state House.
The five members of the House beaten in April’s primary election padded their wallets with more than $40,000 between the passage of the state budget June 30 and their last day in the Legislature through travel per diem and reimbursements.
Former state Rep. Joe Preston, D-Allegheny, led the way with more than $16,400 in per diem and payments for travel and lodging during his final five months as a lawmaker. A member of the state House since 1982, Preston lost to Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, in the primary.
Former state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Blair, was a close second. Geist scored more than $14,500 in travel and per diem payments between July 1 and Nov. 30.
Geist was in the state House since 1979 but lost to state Rep. John McGinnis, R-Blair, in the primary.
The three other state lawmakers who lost in the primary — state Reps. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia; Kevin Murphy, D-Lackawanna; and Ken Smith, D-Lackawanna — collected between $1,320 and $5,760 in travel, lodging and per diem payments before the legislative session ended in November.
In 2012, lawmakers made a base salary of about $82,000, the second highest in the nation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Geist said he took per diem only for the days he worked at the Capitol.
“It’s part of the compensation package,” Geist said. “I don’t set the compensation rates.”
Preston said he also was working until the final days of the session, mostly packing up and cleaning out his Capitol office and his apartment in Harrisburg.
“I had to make several trips out there and back (to his home in Pittsburgh),” Preston said.
Under state law, all members of the General Assembly who live more than 50 miles from the state capital are entitled to per diem payments of between $158 and $163, which are intended to cover the cost of travel and lodging.
The lawmakers are not required to turn in receipts, though some voluntarily submit them for reimbursement.
Lawmakers are also allowed to submit receipts for travel and lodging, although they cannot take both a per diem and a reimbursement for the same day.
The state House was in session for a total of 14 days, including four non-voting days.
Geist claimed per diem on 16 days in August — the House did not have a single voting-session day during that month.
But the 17-term incumbent-turned-lame-duck wasn’t finished. He claimed per diem 13 times in September before grabbing 18 more in October and another 14 in November.
Not to be outdone, Preston collected per diem on 44 days during those same four months, including 12 in October and 12 in November.
He said lawmakers’ work goes beyond session days — a lot of research, writing and negotiating happens at other times.
“Session is just a small part of it, and I don’t think people realize that,” Preston said. “There’s more to the job than just when we’re on the floor.”
Both men racked up hundreds of dollars in other costs — for parking, meals, tolls and lodging expenses — that were reimbursed directly .
Neither was hard to find during their final months in Harrisburg.
Preston frequented a bar across the street from the Capitol throughout the summer, while Geist held court with staffers and lobbyists in the Capitol cafeteria on many non-session days during the fall.
Geist now runs Richard A. Geist Consulting, with offices in Altoona and Harrisburg. He plans to consult on transportation and project development but said he was not working toward setting up the private firm while still on state time this past fall.
“My job was to work on transportation issues and that’s what I did, right up to the end,” he said.
Preston is now retired and said he has no plans to return to public office.
While all lawmakers are entitled to per diem and reimbursements for expenses — even lame ducks — these two are examples of how the system can be used to pad one’s pockets.
State Rep. Dan Truitt, R-Chester, said the per diem system gives the impression that lawmakers are lining their pockets at times when they are not actually incurring those expenses. He wants all expenses to be reimbursed with receipts required, as is the case in the private sector.
“If they really are putting in this time, they should get paid for it,” Truitt said. “The public should feel confident that they are not getting paid for anything they are not doing.”
Truitt introduced legislation last year to end the per diem system and require receipts for all reimbursements. He says he plans to do so again in 2013.
But don’t expect the bill to go anywhere. After all, he’s asking lawmakers to vote in favor of removing their own perks.
Last year’s bill received 12 co-sponsors out of the 203 House members.
Preston said it would cost more to process receipts for all expenses, which would include everything from rent and food to towels, sheets and toilet paper.
The expense totals were obtained by PA Independent via an open records request.
Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.
— Edited by John Trump at email@example.com