Butler County state legislators used per diem perks less than their colleagues during the pandemic-ridden 2020.
Last month, Spotlight PA brought attention to per diem overuse by providing a list of legislators who utilized the benefit and the total amount they used for the year.
“I was really shocked when I saw some of those numbers,” said Rep. Marci Mustello, R-11th. “There is a distinct difference between per diem use and per diem abuse, in this time especially.”
Per diem is an allocation of non-taxable money to legislators for use during session days in Harrisburg. The money is meant to be used for lodging, food and travel.
The top three per diem users were Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7th, who serves part of Mercer County, at $24,115; Christopher Sainato, D-9th, who serves part of Lawrence County, at $24,073; and Kevin Boyle, D-172nd, who serves parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, at $21,604.
Mustello used $5,600, which was slightly above the statewide average of $5,048 for the 144 legislators listed in the report.
“The per diems do offset that travel cost,” Mustello said. “It helped some of us.”
Unlike most of the county's state legislators, Mustello's main office is in Butler, and like many Western Pennsylvania legislators, she has one of the longest commutes to the capitol.
According to road maps, Harrisburg sits at about 100 miles away from Philadelphia; meanwhile, Pittsburgh is about 200 miles from the state capital. From Butler to Harrisburg is about 230 miles, and from Erie to Harrisburg is about 269 miles.
Rep. Tim Bonner, R-8th, said one of the ways he shaved off some per diem use this year was by condensing his trips from Grove City to Harrisburg to fewer days. Bonner was listed as using $5,363 in per diem costs.
Bonner, who serves Mercer County and part of Butler County, said he leaves at 5:30 a.m. Monday, so he'd be in the capitol by 9 a.m. for the start of the session, and he leaves Wednesday following the session, arriving home late at night.
“Otherwise, you would be entitled to per diems the day before and the day after as well,” he said.
Bonner said while he doesn't like to use more than he needs, he added it can be useful because it helps him be in the capitol to make his voice heard for his constituents.
While legislators can attend and cast votes virtually, they cannot speak on the floor on any issues.
“I don't think it would serve our district well to do it that way,” Bonner said. “My position was that I should be in Harrisburg each and every day a session was occurring. I did that.”
Despite per diem having its fair uses, some believe it is too easy to abuse, including Sen. Elder Vogel, R-47th. Vogel, who serves constituents in Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties, was not listed in the report because he did not use any per diem.
“I haven't taken a per diem since the day I was elected,” Vogel said. “I'm not taking taxpayer money and sticking it in my pocket.”
Vogel, whose main office in Rochester, Pa., said instead, he hangs onto all of his receipts for food, hotel rooms and gas, so taxpayers can see why he's being reimbursed.
Vogel said he's not against all per diem use, but he doesn't feel the need to use it, and he thinks there should be more accountability with it. He said one simple change could be asking for receipts in the same way the government does for expenses.
“If you show receipts, it at least gives a little bit of a picture of what you're spending in your per diems, as opposed to no accountability whatsoever,” he said.
Also last month, shortly after the report, a bill was introduced to the state Senate that would stop lawmakers from using per diems altogether.
The bill, S.B. 362, was introduced by Sen. Jim Brewster, D-45th, who serves parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. The bill is part of a package with other reform measures.
“It's long past time to eliminate these legislative perks that have cost taxpayers millions and cost their elective representatives the public confidence that is critical to effective government,” Brewster said in a news release. “We will have tough decisions ahead as we rebuild our economy, and trust has to be restored and sacrifice has to be shared.”
Brewster first introduced the reform measures in 2015. Upon their failure, he has continued to re-introduce the measures. All of the bills were referred to the Senate State Government Committee, where they remained as of Monday.