A baby step on per diem reform

Since most if not all progress and reform that comes from any legislative body is incremental, it is heartening to see a baby step towards reforming the PA Legislature's too-often abused per diem allotments.

I've railed against excessive per diems for decades. They are payments, now in the $160 a-day range, that lawmakers can collect in addition to salary if they actually show up for work.

Such payments are supposed to be used for food and lodging. They are tax-free. They can be claimed whether the Legislature is in session or not. And they require no receipts. In other words, they can be collected without any proof that they were actually spent on food and lodging.

Many lawmakers, including Philly Democrat Mark Cohen,for years claimed and collected per diems for as many days as they like, including holidays and weekends.

The online news service PA Independent reported last month that lawmakers collected more than $1.2 million in per diems in just the first six months of 2013 and that 32 lawmakers collected more than $10,000 each during that time.

The system allows lawmakers to add tens of thousands of dollars to their salaries each year despite Article II, Section 8 of the state Constitution (routinely ignored) that says lawmakers' compensation shall be limited to salary and mileage "and no other compensation whatever."

So any step toward limiting per diems is welcome.

Enter state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delco, an Iraq war vet (a Blackhawk helicopter door-gunner), elected to the House in 2008.

He's circulating a memo to fellow members saying he'll soon seek to amend House rules to limit per diem claims: no more holidays and no more than seven claims per month for days when the House is not in session or holding committee meetings.

It's a small step. But it's sensible and a step toward integrity and tax-dollar protection, both of which are long lacking in our Legislature.

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