How Sweet It Is to be a State Legislator: More on Per Diems from John Baer

Prepare to get mad. In a column today, John Baer highlights some disturbing numbers from Harrisburg. For instance: Catered meals at the Capitol during the last legislative session cost taxpayers almost $250,000. And lawmakers’ total "per diems" -- an allowance legislators get for food, mileage and housing during budget negotiations -- cost taxpayers $30,000 to $50,000 a day.
We wanted to learn a bit more about these sweet, sweet legislative perks, so we e-mailed John a few of follow up questions:

It’s Our Money: When did per diems for the General Assembly, as we know them today, start? Have they been increasing or decreasing lately?

John Baer: They've been around as long as I can remember. I started covering the Legislature 22 years ago. [Lately] they've gone up. They vary depending on where a legislator lives (those close to Harrisburg get partial per diems). The current rate is $158 a-day, and they don't need any receipts.

IOM:  Has any legislator in recent years made a serious effort to cut back on them? Does anyone even campaign promising to cut them?

JB: Some lawmakers do not take per diems, but no lawmaker that I'm aware of has introduced any measures to reduce or eliminate them -- there was some tightening on distance from capitol (meaning how far a legislator has to travel to Harrisburg to be eligible) right after the '05 pay grab scandal.

IOM: Do things like per diems and legislator salaries get a disproportionate amount of attention, given the proportion of the budget they represent?

JB: Lawmakers certainly think so. I think it's not so much the salaries and per diems, it's the whole package of benefits, including Cadillac health care and pensions, and the Legislature's operating budget, which tops $300 million a-year.

IOM: Was the Legislature's operating budget cut as part of [this year's] budget deal?

JB: As far as I know there are no serious cuts in legislative staff or operations budgets.

IOM: Do you know how nice the Legislature’s catered food is? And is it in addition to, or part of Lawmakers' per diems?

JB: The catered food varies from pizza to full dinners and is in addition to per diems.