Lawmakers spend $243K on hotels, meals during budget impasse



HARRISBURG – State lawmakers spent $243,000 of taxpayer money for their hotel bills and meal tabs during the first 100 days of a state budget stalemate even as that impasse required schools and social service programs to scramble for money to stay open.

Pennsylvania has gone five months without a budget and only in recent days have Gov. Tom Wolf and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature announced a framework to end the stalemate. This framework focuses on a state sales-tax increase, expanded property tax cuts, a boost in school aid and major changes to public pension plans and the state-owned liquor stores.

The stalemate has left public schools, county social service agencies and local nonprofits without state aid. School districts across Pennsylvania are borrowing millions of dollars to keep open classrooms, county agencies have waiting lists for some services and nonprofits are laying off staff.

A Capitol activist considers the legislative spending an affront to taxpayers.

“Why should taxpayers reimburse and pay lawmakers for not doing their job?” asked Eric Epstein, cofounder of RockTheCapital. “The reality is without a budget the social services will be reduced, schools will close and taxpayers will suffer.”

Pennsylvania’s budget stalemate started July 1 when Wolf vetoed a budget and related pension and liquor privatization legislation passed by GOP lawmakers. Republicans were unsuccessful in getting super-majority votes to override the governor’s vetoes and pass short-term “stopgap” budgets. House lawmakers last month rejected a revised tax proposal from Wolf.

A Right to Know Law request was filed by the Times-Tribune, a Times-Shamrock newspaper, to review records between July 1 and Oct. 8 of both per diems – daily allowances for lodging and meals that require no receipts – and reimbursement of actual expenses for lodging and meals, which do require receipts.

The $243,000 found in a review of the reimbursements could have gone to help nonprofits statewide pay interest on the more than $3 million in loans taken out so far to keep operating, said Gary Drapek, president of the United Way of Lackawanna and Wyoming counties.

This same amount would operate a safe house for women and children escaping domestic violence for a year, said Peg Ruddy, executive director of Women’s Resource Center of Scranton. The center has taken a line of credit to keep operating.

“It (expense money) could be put to much better use,” she said.

An analysis also found:

r House members spent $219,000 on lodging and meals. Senators spent $23,000. That would cover more than a month of Carbondale Area School District’s Blue Cross insurance bill. Unable to pay its bills, the district considered shutting its doors due to the budget impasse, but instead chose to borrow more money.

r In that first 100 days of the budget impasse, the House was in session only 11 days and the Senate met eight days. Lawmakers racked up expenses to attend committee meetings around the state, go to conferences, work on legislative issues like legalizing medical marijuana and meet with constituents.

r Having no budget also didn’t stop lawmakers from holding community events such as senior citizen expos, document-shredding hours and seminars on concealed weapon laws. In some cases, lawmakers picked up meal tabs for constituents.

r In Northeastern Pennsylvania, legislators took $15,494.16 in reimbursements, an average of $820.85 over 100 days. For example, that’s the equivalent of 322 hours of senior companion service to homebound seniors.

r Rep. Tina Pickett, R-Towanda, and Sen. John Gordner, R-Berwick, have the most expenses in the Northeastern Pennsylvania delegation at $1,666 and $1,660, respectively. Pickett’s expenses include $134 spent on food for Boy Scouts and other volunteers at a senior expo in her district. She also had expenses related to her post as chairwoman of the House Insurance Committee.

As Senate majority whip, Gordner has participated in top-level budget negotiations with the governor and others. Gordner also spent $145 for lodging while attending a Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority board meeting in Pittsburgh. He submits expenses for reimbursement.

Some lawmakers took no reimbursements during the first 100 days of the budget impasse. In Northeastern Pennsylvania, that includes Sens. John Blake, D-Archbald, and Mario Scavello, R-Mount Pocono; and Reps. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, and Jerry Knowles, R-Tamaqua.

The Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses and House Republican caucus are borrowing money from banks to cover operations, having exhausted long-standing surpluses during the stalemate. The House Democratic Caucus took a payment in advance from the state Treasury to cover payroll.

The House GOP caucus stopped paying per diems and reimbursing expenses in late October after it borrowed money, said caucus spokesman Stephen Miskin.

The House Democratic caucus stopped paying expenses on Nov. 1 after the reserves were depleted, said spokesman Bill Patton.

“The people elected to represent all of us in the legislature face hours of travel and are required to be on call for meetings and votes,” Patton said. “As long as there were legislative funds left over from previous years the decision was made to reimburse the cost of coming to work in Harrisburg, including food and a place to sleep.”

The Senate caucuses are still paying expenses.