A per diem is an amount of money that an employer will give someone to cover expenses for a business-related trip.

Unless you have a very specific job where travel is required, it’s not usually the kind of thing that becomes a big part of your paycheck.

But then there are the Pennsylvania state legislators.

If you want to make money and run for office, Pennsylvania is one of the best places to be. It is one of just 10 states where being a lawmaker is a full-time job, with a paycheck of $90,335 a year. (Only California and New York pay more, $114,877 and $110,000, respectively.) That’s almost three times the average state income of $34,352. It’s 50% more than the median household income of $61,744.

Pennsylvania also offers a $178 per diem when traveling more than 50 miles from home. In a state that is almost 300 miles long, that’s easy to hit. Many legislators drive twice that or more to get to Harrisburg. Mileage and other transportation costs are separate from the per diem, which is meant to cover things like food and hotels but doesn’t demand receipts.

In other words, a legislator who travels 60 miles to go to a dinner in his own honor can get paid an extra $178 for doing so.

That can’t really add up that much, though, right? Well, let’s ask state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence. A story from The Caucus and Spotlight PA — part of a larger investigation into legislator expenses — found that he has cashed in for $1.9 million in reimbursements including per diems since taking office in 1994.

Among that is $21,951 in expenses for 2020 — when many legislators worked from home amid pandemic shutdowns. Sainato has never missed a day of work — something he has touted in a newsletter — and kept up that record when other state offices were shuttered.

And he billed taxpayers for it.

This is not about Sainato, though. As far as the Caucus/Spotlight PA investigation has shown, he did nothing more than what he was allowed to do.

That is the problem. Per diems aren’t universal, even among Pennsylvania’s neighbors. Delaware, New Jersey and Ohio don’t offer them. Maryland and New York split them into one amount for food and one for lodging. West Virginia offers an unvouchered $131 per day, but it pays its legislators only $20,000 a year.

If legislators are serious about accountability, the per diem should be replaced with receipts.

— The Tribune-Review, Greensburg/ TNS

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