Thursday, October 20, 2005

Pa. perkaholics

Pa. perkaholics

A New Era review of state records reveals some local legislators enjoy lavish perks--above and beyond any pay raise. And you're paying for it.

By Tom Murse

Lancaster New Era

Published: Oct 18, 2005 1:38 PM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - Lancaster Countians expressed shock when most of their lawmakers voted themselves a pay raise that made them the second highest-paid legislature in the nation.But residents here might be equally surprised to learn that some of those same legislators already have been enjoying the perks of what critics believe is among the most generous compensation packages in the land.

State records obtained by the New Era show the county’s 11-member Harrisburg delegation cost taxpayers more than $1.1 million in salaries, benefits and perks over the last year.

That combination “makes Pennsylvania’s Legislature the most expensive in the country,” said Tim Potts, a former House Democratic staffer turned taxpayer activist.

Among the local delegation, Senate Majority Leader David “Chip” Brightbill cost taxpayers the most — more than $130,000 — largely because his leadership position pays more than a rank-and-file seat does.

But topping the $100,000 mark as well were fellow Senate members Noah W. Wenger and Gibson E. Armstrong, and House members Gordon Denlinger, Roy Baldwin and Gibson C. Armstrong.

Their compensation totals have swelled because they’re charging taxpayers up to $129 a day for food and lodging when they travel to Harrisburg for business. They’re claiming reimbursement for gas or mileage to and from work. And some are billing taxpayers for car leases costing more than $5,000 a year.

There are notable exceptions.

Three of the county’s lawmakers — Reps. Katie True, Scott Boyd and David Hickernell — refuse to claim such perks on a regular basis, and were the most frugal among the county’s delegation over the last year.

Each of them cost taxpayers less than $90,000, records show.

The lawmakers who do take advantage of the perks said they would be unable to afford being a legislator if they had to cover those costs out of their own pockets.

“Some representatives have a base of personal wealth that enables them to, for political purposes, turn these expense reimbursements down,” said state Rep. Gordon Denlinger of Narvon.

“I’m not in a position to do that at this time.”

Others say that like executives in private industry, they are entitled to have their food and travel costs paid for by their employers, who in this case are taxpayers.

“Where I came from in private industry, I never went on a business trip without having my hotel room reimbursed, my flight reimbursed, my food and necessary expenses taken care of,” said Rep. Roy Baldwin of Manheim Township.

Others said flatly that the law allows them to take advantage of such perks, so they do.

“It’s been the procedure that’s been used for many years. I didn’t set it. I comply with whatever those regulations are,” said Wenger, a veteran Republican from Stevens.

Not all lawmakers, however, feel compelled to take the perks.

“It would be different if I lived in Erie and had to travel to Harrisburg,” said True, who lives in East Hempfield Township. “But I live close by, and I think this just goes along with my philosophy of public service.”

The cost of hiring True, a Republican, came in lowest of all 11 members in the New Era analysis, at $85,308.

Boyd, of West Lampeter Township, said he doesn’t take advantage of the perks because he lives by the motto, “From those who have been given much, much is expected.”

“We’ve just been really blessed,” Boyd said of himself and his family. “We, as a personal decision, have decided to try and keep ourselves focused on public service, as opposed to being a career politician.”

He cost taxpayers $89,128 over the year long period.

The most expensive House member was Denlinger, at $107,304. The Republican lawmaker claimed the most per diem reimbursement for food and lodging of all of the county’s lawmakers. It totaled $10,123 in the 12-month period from Aug. 1, 2004, through July 31 of this year, state records show.

He defended his use of the expense account.

“Do we just want folks who are self-made millionaires, or do we want folks who still struggle to make a mortgage payment or a car payment?” Denlinger asked. “I think we do want people who struggle with the financial stresses of the world.”

Denlinger does not charge taxpayers for a car lease. But he does claim mileage reimbursement for his drive to and from the Capitol and in his northeast county district. That was $8,868 for the yearlong period, also the most for any local lawmaker.

“I live farther from the Capitol than any other Lancaster County representative,” Denlinger said. “And as such, my expenses associated with serving will be higher than my Lancaster County colleagues’, and would probably be comparable with representatives from Berks or Chester counties.”

Baldwin, who ranked second-highest, said that lawmakers are entitled to perks such as vehicles and meals.

He said that when he claimed expenses as a product test engineer with New Holland North America, as he does now as a lawmaker, “you maintain your standard of living, what you’re used to as a private person.”

“If I would go to New York on my own, and I would stay in a hotel and eat, they expected I would do the same when I’m working for them,” he said.

Baldwin charged taxpayers $5,388 for his Ford Explorer SUV and $6,441 in daily food and lodging allowances over the last year. He also claimed $3,030 reimbursement for gas.

Baldwin said he chose to drive an SUV, whose fuel efficiency ratings are low, for two reasons.

“One of the things that is important for me is, first of all, to be safe,” said Baldwin. “Second of all is to get to Harrisburg when I need to. To me an SUV is appealing for those two reasons.”

Baldwin also charged taxpayers for $1,350 in airfare and $433 for hotels. He said the expenses were related to his work on a House committee evaluating better ways to pay for fixing old roads and building new ones.

He said he flew to Austin, Texas, and Miami, Fla., to meet with department of transportation officials of each state. He stayed two nights at each place.

Rep. Armstrong, whose costs came in third highest among the eight House members, agrees with both Baldwin and Denlinger.

Like Baldwin, he says lawmakers are entitled to the perks they claim.

“Those are things that are normally associated with professional jobs where there’s a degree of travel and executive-level decision-making,” said Rep. Armstrong, of Strasburg Township.

And like Denlinger, Armstrong says the perks allow common folks to seek office without worrying about the cost of traveling and working far from home.

“We want a legislature that looks like Pennsylvania. We want legislators who are average people and can relate to the average person, rather than a house of lords made up of a bunch of elitists who may be independently wealthy,” Rep. Armstrong said.

He charged taxpayers $5,388 for his lease of a state-owned, 2003 Ford Explorer for the yearlong period. He also claimed reimbursement for $1,957 in gas for the SUV, and $7,089 in daily food and lodging allowances.

Rep. Tom Creighton began leasing a vehicle at taxpayer expense this year despite making a campaign pledge not to when he first ran for office.

Since April, the Rapho Township Republican has billed taxpayers $305 a month for a 2005 Ford F-150 pickup truck.

He had been claiming mileage reimbursement on a 1992 Oldsmobile, but switched to the state-owned F-150 when gas prices began to rise, he said. Lawmakers cannot claim mileage on leased vehicles.

“When I looked at what they were paying me for mileage, and what the lease was, it wasn’t that much of a difference,” said Creighton. “It was almost a wash.”

According to two separate newspaper accounts of a March 18, 2003, news conference, Creighton had promised to turn down all perks, including a vehicle lease, when he campaigned for office.

He made a similar pledge in writing, in a question-and-answer session published the following day in the Sunday News. The newspaper asked the question, “Do you plan to take a term-limit pledge and to give up some legislative perks, as Katie True did? Please give details.”

Creighton responded: “Yes; all perks and six-term limit.”

When asked about his initial pledge, Creighton replied: “I didn’t make any promises like that. It’s not in my memory that I made that commitment.”

Creighton charged taxpayers for $3,174 in business meals, as well. He said he occasionally picks up the tab when he and another lawmaker or constituent go to lunch or dinner to discuss policy.

In Harrisburg, Creighton often frequents Scott’s Grille, a popular spot for Capitol insiders where lunchtime sandwiches and entrees cost about $7 or $8. When he’s in Manheim, where his district office is located, he frequents Kreider Farms.

Of our 11-member delegation, Brightbill claims the largest paycheck — $100,909 — because of his job as Senate majority leader. He also claimed $5,301 in mileage reimbursement and $8,090 in per diems. The New Era requested further explanation of Brightbill’s expense report, but he did not respond.

Wenger, as chairman of the Senate Republican caucus, makes the second-highest salary, at $84,441. He drives his own car but claimed reimbursement for $4,670 in mileage and $8,046 in per diems, on voting-session days.

Sen. Armstrong leases a 2003 Ford Expedition SUV which cost taxpayers $5,019 over the last year.

The Expedition is the second-largest SUV made by Ford, and gets about 15 miles per gallon, according to specifications found on the company’s Web site. Armstrong charged taxpayers for $1,308 in gas.

He also billed taxpayers $1,750 for two hotel rooms during the weeklong Council of State Governments annual State Trends and Leadership Forum in Anchorage, Alaska, in September of 2004.

While there, the Republican lawmaker charged taxpayers for dinner five times for himself and a legislative staffer. The total cost to taxpayers: $311.58, plus another $52 in meals for the senator alone.

Armstrong did not respond to two telephone messages.

The more frugal lawmakers, however, were happy to explain their expenses.

True listed only one charge on her yearlong expense report: $161 for hosting a breakfast discussion about stiffer penalties for child-abusers. She had invited a countian whose grand-daughter was murdered and a group of law-enforcement officials to Harrisburg.

Boyd does hold Saturday morning “eggs and issues” breakfasts, which cost taxpayers $3,472 over the 12-month period. Between 30 and 50 people attend the events, held at Willow Valley.

Boyd said the breakfast meetings help him stay in touch with his constituents.

“It’s one thing to send a newsletter and relay information,” he said. “This provides people a venue to express their opinions right to me.”

Boyd added that residents of his 43rd Legislative District have brought many important issues to his attention. His “business meals” expense also includes an appreciation breakfast he held for members of the Lancaster Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Hickernell, of Elizabethtown, charged $3,687 for the same type of issues breakfasts. He said the cost covers constituent issue breakfasts he holds every six to eight weeks. Typically, he said, about 50 people attend.

“I have found it to be a great way to hear what is on the minds of those I represent here in the 98th District,” Hickernell said. “Likewise, the feedback I receive from those who attend is very positive.”

He added that not charging taxpayers for a car or mileage reimbursement was a “personal decision.”

“I don’t consider it a hardship by any stretch,” he said. “I’m not that far from Harrisburg. I think it clearly can be justified for people who live significant distances away. There is a lot of driving in this job.”

© 2004-2005 Lancaster Newspapers


Vice Chairman of Voter Education

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