How a Pennsylvania lawmaker billed taxpayers $ 1.8 million in expenses
HARRISBURG – The legislature was on recess. Policy making on Capitol Hill had come to a standstill. But State Representative Chris Sainato was about to take it – again.
It was early August 2019, and the Pennsylvania lawmaker from Lawrence County was traveling to Nashville to meet with other lawmakers from across the country. Later that month his travels took him to Harrisburg, then to Coatesville, Lewistown, State College, Erie, again to Harrisburg and a few towns near Pittsburgh.
Sainato’s bill for his trips – paid for by taxpayers – included over $ 1,950 in mileage, parking and other transportation costs, and just under $ 3,000 in a special benefit called per diems, which are lump sum payments that lawmakers can claim without a receipt whenever they travel more than 50 miles outside of their districts.
The Western Pennsylvania Democrat, who prides himself on never missing a day’s work, says spending is just part of the business of the people.
It turns out that this business can be incredibly lucrative as well.
From his election to the House at the end of 1994 until mid-January of this year, Sainato spent or was personally reimbursed for more than $ 1.8 million in mileage, meals, accommodation, travel and expenses. office, including nearly $ 640,000 in per diem costs – all billed to taxpayers, according to an analysis of expense records by The Caucus and Spotlight PA as part of their ongoing investigation, The hidden tab.
Adjusted for inflation, the total is over $ 2.2 million.
During that same period, Sainato and other lawmakers – who constitute the largest full-time legislature in the country – received almost annual increases in the cost of living and are today among the highest paid in the United States. . In 2020, Sainato was paid a salary of $ 90,335, plus $ 21,951 in expense reimbursements and $ 30,746 in per diems, most of which he received during the pandemic, with the state economy at stalled and millions of people unemployed.
“I can’t believe it,” Sainato said in a recent interview when told about his expenses. “I don’t know where you get $ 1.8 million.”
Sainato’s party has been in the minority for most of his term in the legislature, and he has been the main sponsor of only two bills that have become law, according to the Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau.
In many expense categories scrutinized by news organizations, Sainato’s spending eclipsed those of most of his colleagues, not because he was spending extravagantly on office furniture, staff salaries, or gifts. for voters – but because of its unique style of travel. legislate.
In an interview, Sainato, 62, attributed much of his expenses to never missing a day of work. “A perfect balance sheet, inspired by you,” he wrote in a bulletin to voters last fall.
“That’s all I do. I haven’t missed a day, ”Sainato said, noting that he is single and among the chamber’s oldest lawmakers. “It’s the only job I have. … Every time I’m supposed to be there, I go.
Even during the pandemic, when many of his colleagues in the House took advantage of the new rules allowing remote voting for the first time, he was there every sitting day – and receiving his per diem. Sainato said it was his duty to introduce himself.
Its expenses are part of the hidden costs charged to taxpayers to support the Pennsylvania legislature. Every year, lawmakers are collectively paid millions of dollars just to get to work, stay at work, eat at work, and then drive home from work – benefits most of their constituents do not enjoy. Other perks come in the form of dinners paid for by lobbyists and industry groups, freebies with no monetary limits (as long as they are reported), and access to campaign accounts that can be used for almost any expense. such as meals, travel, and even shoes.
Spending is spread over a range of statutory accounts which are largely closed to the public. The Caucus and Spotlight PA, in a year-long survey of statutory spending, acquired and analyzed nearly 400,000 statutory spending from 2017 to 2020. Sainato was near or at the top of the list for per diems for meals and accommodation; and reimbursements for mileage and other transportation costs.
In response to the information, top GOP leaders in the House and Senate said they were working on a plan to make most of the spending of lawmakers available on a publicly accessible website. One senator, Democrat Lindsey Williams of Allegheny County, said she would introduce a bipartisan bill demanding transparency in spending.
As part of their ongoing investigation, news outlets have asked for all of Sainato’s spending dating back to his first day in office through mid-January 2021. These records revealed a fairly consistent spending pattern over two decades and half. Adjusted for inflation, he has spent an average of about $ 86,000 in tax dollars per year since 1995.
Beyond usual office costs like rent and district office supplies, the expenses show that Sainato over the years has traveled to nearly two dozen out-of-state conferences and spent weeks per year visiting dozens of towns in Pennsylvania for audiences, tours, ceremonies and more. events.
“This is absolutely morally wrong and people know it,” said former Rep. Katie True, a Lancaster County Republican who, during her tenure as state legislator, avoided many of the perks of the job. “The whole system has to change fundamentally. “
Sainato, according to records, received nearly $ 162,000 in mileage and over $ 175,000 in other transportation costs, including gasoline, parking and tolls.
For all of his trips to Pennsylvania, Sainato originally used a government car at a cost of about $ 4,800 per year for the lease, $ 3,600 per year for gasoline and oil, and an additional $ 350. per year for maintenance. Since he got rid of this vehicle in 2012, he has collected an average of around $ 16,700 per year for mileage.
Even at the height of the recession in the late 2000s, when lawmakers slashed billions of dollars from the budget, Sainato failed to cut spending. During the 19-month period between December 2007 and June 2009, the Democrat claimed $ 120,226 in overall spending. Of that money, $ 49,448 went to Sainato in the form of per diem reimbursements.
Daily rates vary depending on the time of year and whether lawmakers travel for a session with or without a vote. Pennsylvania’s tariffs are among the most generous in the country, according to a Analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
This is in part because state lawmakers are allowed to claim such payments, albeit for a lower amount, not only when they come to Capitol Hill to vote, but for any business or travel related to their work. during a so-called non-session. days. And the daily allowance clock starts ticking as soon as they leave their homes.
Because the western Pennsylvania district of Sainato is among the furthest from the Capitol – about 262 miles – he said he often had to leave for Harrisburg the day before a voting session and return the next day, allowing him to collect more days of daily allowances. .
Records show that is only half the story.
Sainato also received $ 372,140 in “out-of-session” daily allowances for 2,621 claims made over 25 years, or an average of approximately 105 travel days each year. That’s roughly double the average number of voting days on Capitol Hill in any given year.
Many of his out-of-session per diems were for legislative hearings and other events in the state, but several were for visits to or near Capitol grounds on days when the legislature was recess.
On May 29, 2012, for example, when lawmakers suspended a week between polling days, he received a sessionless per diem allowance of $ 163 for visiting the state Medal of Honor memorial, unless a minute walk from the Capitol. It was a tour he had done less than a year earlier, in July 2011, according to expense reports.
Traveling around the state to attend Democratic Political Committee meetings was another reason Sainato’s out-of-session per diems were so high. Republicans and Democrats in each chamber head such committees, which do not have the right to vote but instead meet to discuss issues or policies important to their political party.
Records show he has attended at least 634 policy committee hearings – although the vague nature of the records makes it impossible to determine the exact number – for which he has received $ 107,338 since becoming lawmaker .
He also received daily allowances “out of session” when traveling out of state to attend conferences.
In 2002, for example, Sainato made his first trip out of town to New Orleans for a meeting of the National Council of State Gambling Lawmakers. At the time, casino gambling was not yet legal in existence. Pennsylvania.
For his four-day stay, he submitted $ 567 in per diems out of session. The expense reports don’t explain what that money was used to cover – and his caucus doesn’t need an explanation.
Since then he has attended 22 conferences outside of Pennsylvania, most notably in South Beach, Florida; Scottsdale, Arizona; Seattle; and San Francisco and Napa, Calif., collecting $ 19,200 in out-of-session per diems, according to expense reports. This does not include registration fees and other travel related transportation costs.
Over the past two decades, advocates of good government, along with a handful of lawmakers, have criticized everything from the high salaries of lawmakers to the other perks of the job. Per diems, in particular, have been a sore point, with many abandoning them in favor of a system of reimbursement of actual expenses.
But year after year, efforts have stalled due to inaction and the fact that any change is left to lawmakers – the exact same people who enjoy the benefits.
While greater transparency is part of the solution, True, the former GOP lawmaker, said basic changes are needed for lawmakers’ expense accounts.
“One blanket per day?” How do you verify this? “
When asked if it would be better to document actual expenses, he said it would be a barrier to getting things done “for people like me who are very busy.”
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