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Pa. lawmakers cashed in big on expenses during pandemic

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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 15, 2021
Per diems, Republican retreats, stimulus plans, Biden visit, Fetterman foes, hunger strike, and who to blame for that lost hour of sleep. It's Monday.

The pivot to remote work for Pennsylvania's legislature last spring did little to slow the tide of travel-related expense requests coming in from state lawmakers.  

A Spotlight PA analysis of legislative records found the House paid out $955,696.68 in such reimbursements in 2020, at least $668,993 of that after the coronavirus began to spread in Pennsylvania in March and members were allowed to cast votes remotely. As the pandemic's economic fallout grew, so did scrutiny of the practice.

“All of us have been asked to make sacrifices during this pandemic, and the General Assembly should be no different,” Sen. Tim Kearney (D., Delaware) said when he introduced legislation last summer to temporarily suspend the reimbursements. “It seems like the least we can do."

THE CONTEXT: The payments, known as “per diems,” have long been criticized as an unnecessary largesse for the country’s largest full-time legislature, which has some of the highest per diem rates and state lawmaker salaries in the nation. 

“It started feeling really creepy to me, all the different ways people were maximizing the amount of money going into their pockets at taxpayer expense,” Dan Truitt, a Republican former House member from Chester County, said of pre-pandemic per diems.

While in office, Truitt said he introduced a bill in each legislative session to ban per diems, but none got a hearing.


"We will be candid about our challenges and transparent about the solutions and resources we're bringing to bear to reduce violence across the city."
VACCINE UPDATE: President Joe Biden says the U.S. government will launch a national Find a Vaccination website to help connect eligible Americans with available doses in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, experts warn against posting pictures of your vaccination card to social media, saying the cards contain sensitive personal information that might put you at risk of identity theft. For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing
» Redistricting in Pennsylvania: Join us at 5 p.m. March 16 for a Capitol Live by Spotlight PA expert panel on redistricting, gerrymandering, and its impact on Pennsylvania communities. RSVP NOW »»

» Government transparency: Join the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition at 11 a.m. March 16 to discuss transparency in the Keystone State. RSVP NOW »»
POST IT: Thanks, Thomas M., for this still snow-covered shot of Gifford Pinchot State Park in York County — though, we're not missing the snow that much. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.

COMPANY RETREAT: GOP lawmakers are coming together for their annual retreats in the coming weeks, but not virtually. Despite the pandemic and related warnings, House and Senate Republicans have scheduled the gatherings in person this year at the ritzy Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Spotlight PA reports. “It’s not a good look,” said one Republican lawmaker who disagreed with the choice of venue, especially as Pennsylvania's unemployment rate ticks up again.

LOW HOPES: Gov. Tom Wolf has big plans for the billions in federal stimulus dollars now headed to Pennsylvania and little confidence any will be accomplished given the partisan makeup of the state legislature, WHYY reports. Wolf told reporters he’d use the money for projects including updating aging bridges and highways if he had his druthers. Wolf's also eyeing alternatives to Pennsylvania's second-highest-in-the-nation gas tax, saying it's become an unreliable source of transportation funding.

PRESIDENTIAL VISIT: Fresh off his adoption of a landmark, $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, Joe Biden is set to visit Delaware County tomorrow, The Inquirer reports, marking his first visit to Pennsylvania as president. The visit is part of a larger effort to drive home the benefits of the massive stimulus package and build momentum for Biden's next legislative push, likely a sweeping infrastructure program.

NO APOLOGIES: An interview with Lieutenant Gov. and U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman in The Atlantic does not include an apology for the time he pulled a shotgun on an unarmed Black man. Instead, Fetterman doubles down, rationalizing his actions, pointing to unrelated criminal charges filed against the man years later, and further dividing the progressive coalition he'll likely need to win the nod for outgoing U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's seat.

HUNGER STRIKE: The mother of a deceased Duquesne University football player has ended her hunger strike 237 days after it began in a desperate bid for answers about her son's untimely death at the school. Dannielle Brown ended the protest last week on the advice of doctors after she was hospitalized for malnutrition. Brown returned to the place where it all started, Pittsburgh's Freedom Corner, to gather with supporters and launch The Marquis Jaylen Brown Foundation, WESA reports. 


SLEEP NUMBER: If you're looking for someone to blame for this weekend's lost hour of sleep, look no further than former Pittsburgh city councilor and “father of daylight saving time” Robert Garland. Garland is credited with devising the nation’s first daylight saving plan and drumming up congressional support for the law adopted in 1917. Critics say we're still paying for it all these years later.

COAL ROLL: President Franklin Roosevelt leaned heavily on visual artists to drive home the need for his ambitious New Deal program. That effort included a 1938 visit by photographer Sheldon Dick to a ramshackle coal mining operation in Northumberland County, "the kind that became very common during the Great Depression as the anthracite industry collapsed," Wynning History reports.

HIGH HORSE: In 1482, legendary Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci was commissioned to design and build the largest equestrian statue in the world. He'd almost gotten there when French troops invaded Milan and destroyed the full-size model. Fast-forward 500 years, and a retired pilot from Allentown got his hands on Da Vinci's blueprint and decided to take it from there, Atlas Obscura reports.

STRICTLY BUSINESS: A group of friends in Philadelphia set out to humanize the small businesses they love, many treading water in a rising tide of gentrification and globalization, The Inquirer reports. If only people knew about these stories, the friends thought, they’d come shop at these stores. The result is a moving, 144-page tribute to the people and stories behind more than two dozen beloved local shops.

TURNPIKE REBUTTAL: Last week we told you about a new Budget Direct study ranking the Pennsylvania Turnpike as the most expensive toll road in the world. Today we're sharing the Turnpike Commission's rebuttal, which counters that while a $100-plus one-way fare is technically possible, that amount doesn't reflect how people actually use the road, per the Courier Times.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Friday's answer: Adolescent

Congrats to our weekly winner: Bill C.

Congrats to our daily winners: Neal W., Craig W., David I., Jessica K., Susan D., Kim C., Jill G., George S., Dennis M., Kerri G., Joel S., Karen W., Dianne K., Kathy B., Suzanne S., David W., Jill A., Carol D., Anne R., Bob R., Irene R., Beth T., Patricia R., and Theodore W. 
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