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Pa. lawmakers spend big on perks, dodge scrutiny

The Investigator

May 13, 2021 | spotlightpa.org

Money trail, BLM shooting, primary source, 'Christian nationalism,' commonwealth climate, reform goals, partisan divide, and police abuse.

The Pennsylvania legislature spent an average of $51 million a year on food, lodging, travel, and other perks from 2017-2020, but you'd never know it.

That's according to a new, year-long, and ongoing investigation by Spotlight PA in collaboration with The Caucus, attempting to track how the legislature spends tax dollars on itself, and how it obscures that spending.

The project involved dozens of public records requests, an analysis of 400,000 legislative expenses, and pushback from legislative lawyers — all to figure out what should be a simple question: How are lawmakers spending your money?

In total, from 2017 to 2020, the legislature spent $203 million to feed, house, transport, and provide rental offices and other perks for lawmakers and their staffs.

About one in 10 of those dollars — $20 million in all over the four years — went into lawmakers' pockets in the form of reimbursements for meals, mileage subsidies, per diems (more on those here), and other expenses.

That's on top of salaries that are already among the highest of any legislature in the nation, dinners on the dime of lobbyists and industry groups, and access to campaign war chests that some have used for everything from a new pair of sneakers to a jaunt through Europe.

More than a decade ago, a grand jury investigating state lawmakers' misuse of public money recommended the General Assembly make dramatic changes to how it conducted its business — including changes to its spending practices.

The grand jurors recommended eliminating taxpayer-funded partisan caucuses, requiring receipts for lodging and food reimbursements, and reducing the number of district offices to one per legislator. It also recommended that the legislature's budget itemize spending, rather than lumping expenditures under broad categories that mean little to the general public.

None of those changes were implemented. Though some lawmakers pledged increased transparency of their expenses, another Spotlight PA/Caucus review out today finds only a handful are reporting expenses on their websites, and almost all of them were outdated or incorrect.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

YOUR ROLE ON OUR TEAM: We're just 48 hours away from the end of our spring membership drive, and investigations like the one today holding the legislature accountable for its spending of your tax dollars is an example of the kind of journalism that simply would not exist without your support.

We built Spotlight PA on the premise that people will pay for quality, independent, non-partisan journalism that they can't get anywhere else.

Because journalism isn't a business or source of profit, but a public trust. And that's why we make all of our work available at no cost to everyone. But this extraordinary approach to journalism depends on your support.

During the past few days, more than 540 of your friends and neighbors have proudly stepped forward with a contribution to Spotlight PA. During one of our most important campaigns of the year, will you join us and do your part now?

If you're a fan of The Investigator, pay it forward and support Spotlight PA's vital journalism today. Contribute now »»

» THANK YOU to the 38 readers who contributed to our spring membership drive Wednesday.

"If you're going too fast, you're going to get stopped, and you're going to get fined, and it changes behavior."

—State Rep. Mark Gillen (R., Berks) on the push to give Pennsylvania regulators the ability to fine addiction treatment facilities that break rules

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, find where to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and sign up for alerts for your county

» PRIMARY GUIDES: Everyone — regardless of political affiliation — can vote May 18 on four ballot questions. Here's a breakdown of each one. Plus, WHYY has a great primer on the appellate court judge candidates.

» A Pa. prosecutor waited months after receiving a police report to charge a man who shot at protesters

» Pa. can't fine addiction treatment facilities that break rules. Some lawmakers want to change that.

» Inside the fight to see how Pa.'s legislature spends taxpayer money

What you need to know for the May 18 primary

If you've already voted in the upcoming primary by mail, congratulations: Your civic duty is done. If filling out a mail ballot is still on your to-do list, or you plan to vote in person Tuesday, this reading list is for you. Below, we've collected what you need to know to be as prepared as possible. Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA

Ballot questions

Judicial races

Everything else

  • This is by no means an exhaustive list of what will be on every person's ballot. Democrats and Republicans may also be asked to weigh in on municipal candidates, including mayor, depending on where they live. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, make sure to consult a sample ballot so you're not surprised by any of the choices you'll be asked to make Tuesday.

  • For a statewide ballot guide, you can consult the League of Women Voters.

  • It's too late to request a mail ballot, but if you already have one, make sure to return it ASAP. It must be received by your county election office — either in person or by mail — by 8 p.m. on May 18. "Postmarks are not enough," per the Department of State. 

  • Are you registered to vote? You can find out here, then look up your polling place here.

Do you have other questions? There's a decent chance we addressed it in this FAQ about the election.

DEEP DIVE: A New Yorker profile calls state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin) the embodiment of a resurgent form of Christian nationalism and the "belief that God intended America to be a Christian nation." Mastriano's possible 2022 run for governor will get help from a recently raided Rudy Giuliani in Chambersburg this week, per ABC27.

CLIMATE CHANGE: Pennsylvania could be nearly six degrees hotter on average by 2050, according to a new report from the state's Department of Environmental Protection. That's half a degree hotter than predicted six years ago. Capital-Star notes the worst-case scenario also includes more frequent heat waves and severe weather.
VOTING REFORM: A new report released by state House Republicans outlines the voting rule changes they want in place for next year's higher-profile elections, The Inquirer reports. The changes include signature verification, stricter voter ID, and new mail-in ballot rules — all requiring Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's approval.

GOP ULTIMATUM: More than 100 former Republican officials, including several from Pennsylvania, will sign a letter declaring that if the Republican Party does not break with former President Donald Trump, they'll back the creation of a third party, Reuters reports. Signees include former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent.

POWER ABUSE: A Bucks County township allowed a former police officer accused of sexually abusing four boys he met on the job to quietly retire with a "work-related disability," more than $180,000, and a monthly pension, the Courier Times reports. James Christopher Carey was arrested last month on more than 100 counts of child sex abuse. 

» AP: Parnell announces candidacy for Pennsylvania Senate seat

» INQUIRER: Decades of Philly homicide probes called into question

» NYT: Dr. Levine weighs in on anti-trans bills sweeping states

» STAR-GAZETTE: Bradford Co. DA pleads guilty in sex misconduct case

» TRIBLIVE: Pa. Senate Maj. Leader shares breast cancer diagnosis

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

OF AGE (Case No. 92)The ages of a father and son add up to 66. The father's age is the son's age reversed. How old could they be? Multiple solutions are possible.
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: The man is a pilot and the cabin is the cockpit of a plane. Also accepted: They hauled an actual cabin by truck from the southern edge of Colorado to the northern edge of Texas, across Oklahoma's panhandle. (Narrator: Sitting inside a towed cabin is probably illegal and is in no way endorsed by Spotlight PA.)
Congrats to Tish M., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Nathan B., Fred O., Rebecca D., Joel S., Philip C., Michael H., Jeff F., Kenneth J., Lynda G., Judy A., George S., Lois P., Michele M., Deborah D., Jon N., William D., L. Marlin E., Hagan H., Elizabeth W., Beverly M., Mary S., Annette I., Bruce B., Alice O., Kevin M., Norman S., Claire K., Karen S., Mary B., Beth T., Jonathan T., Michelle T., George S., Michael S., Geoff M., James D., Dennis F., Bridget C., and Jyotin S.
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