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How one Pa. lawmaker cost taxpayers $1.8 million


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
June 22, 2021
Two-million-dollar man, protection measures, losing bids, layoff equity, employer mandates, high proof, and welcome to Zombieland. It's Tuesday.
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Even by Pennsylvania's standards, state Rep. Chris Sainato's taxpayer-funded spending stands out.

The Lawrence County Democrat has spent or been reimbursed personally for more than $1.8 million in mileage, meals, lodging, travel, and office-related costs — including nearly $640,000 in per diems legislators can claim without receipts — since taking office in 1994. 

All of that was charged 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 amounts to more than $2.2 million.

Sainato, who prides himself on never missing a day of work, says those expenses are just part of doing the people's business. 

But that kind of spending is attracting new scrutiny as lawmakers push to rein in expenses or, at a minimum, up transparency. 

THE CONTEXT: Sainato's expenses are part of the hidden costs charged to taxpayers to support Pennsylvania’s full-time legislature — the largest and one of the highest-paid in the nation. 

Each year, lawmakers are collectively paid millions of dollars just to drive to work, stay at work, eat at work, then drive home from work — benefits that most of their constituents do not enjoy.

The expenses are spread across an array of legislative accounts that are largely shielded from the public. 

The Caucus and Spotlight PA, as part of a yearlong investigation into legislative spending, acquired and analyzed nearly 400,000 legislative expenses from 2017 to 2020. Sainato was near or at the top of the list for per diems for meals and lodging, and reimbursements for mileage and other transportation costs.

The collaborative reporting has already inspired legislation that would force Pa. to post online how lawmakers spend millions in tax dollars each year
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"When more families know about the relief … that is how we will be able to lift our children out of poverty." 

—VP Kamala Harris in Pittsburgh touting an expanded child tax credit that could lift half of poor children in the U.S. out of poverty, but only if everyone knows about it, as some families will need to manually apply

VACCINE UPDATE: WHYY reports early literature shows about a third of long-haul COVID-19 patients feel better after the vaccine. Others experience no change in symptoms, something scientists are trying to explain. For vaccine providers, use the federal government's online tool, call 1-800-232-0233, or text your ZIP code to 438829 (GETVAX).
A blue moonrise over Moshannon Valley from the Clearfield County side. Thanks, Don H., for sharing. Send us your hidden gems, use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
'OVER PROTECTION': Pandemic restrictions are disappearing almost everywhere except inside many of America's nursing homes. In response, families say their relatives are suffering — especially those with dementia or related disorders — and Pennsylvania’s long-term care ombudsman has received hundreds of complaints about visiting rules already this year. "They have protected them to death," Denise Gracely, whose mother lives in a Berks County nursing home, told the AP.

BIDDING WAR: Pennsylvania is proving how difficult it can be to replace Medicaid contracts worth billions, with losing bidders repeatedly filing suit against the state for the way it picks winners. The Inquirer says it's the third time since 2015 that Pennsylvania has moved to replace the contracts, encountering legal pushback each time. The paper says to insurers, "government-paid health insurance [...] is a feast worth fighting over."

LAYOFF BALANCE: Point Park University in Pittsburgh says new layoffs were unavoidable due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But staff and their union say the layoffs "appeared to target members of minority groups, including women of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community," per PublicSource, renewing a debate about diversity at Point Park and institutions of higher learning statewide.

VACCINE VOTES: A Philadelphia pediatrician lost seven employees after requiring staff to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which federal guidance supports his right to do. WHYY heard from one expert who eschews ultimatums and hardline approaches in favor of surveys and dialogue, while a medical professional questions whether working in a pediatrician's office is the right place for people with that much hesitancy.

FACT CHECK: State Sen. Mike Regan (R., York) cited a "large uptick in alcohol-related accidents, deaths, and DUIs" in supporting a bill to legalize canned cocktails. Regan, whose brother is president of a Harrisburg-based beer distributor, says canned cocktails are more predictably potent than to-go cocktails made by hand. But a Capital-Star fact-check finds DUI arrests actually fell 17% last year.
CONVENTION CALL: Latino leaders from across Pennsylvania will gather in Reading this fall for the 2021 Pennsylvania Latino Convention. A primary goal? Establishing a nongovernmental statewide commission on Latino poverty to "address possibly the number one issue we have that has an effect on everything," an organizer told WITF. 

RABIES RISK: A dog brought to Chester County from Azerbaijan began acting strangely and later tested positive for rabies, setting off a public health investigation spanning several U.S. states. According to the AP, at least 12 people were exposed to the animal, which was one of 34 imported by an animal rescue organization from Azerbaijan to Chicago on June 10

SURVEY SAYS: Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the U.S. for riding out a zombie apocalypse, according to a new and totally scientific study ranking population density, farm output, and each state's share of solar power. A separate study ranked Pennsylvania one of the top ten most fun states in the U.S., because we're here for a good time, not a long time.

'ERSATZ WARHOL': An actor recruited to impersonate Pittsburgh native and pop art king Andy Warhol on a 1967 lecture tour has died. Allen Midgette's New York Times obit says of the ruse, either a prank or performance piece: "A minor furor resulted once the deception had been exposed, with some of the institutions miffed about the speaker fee they had paid."

HIGH VISIBILITY: The first active NFL player to come out as gay did so from his West Chester home on Monday. Carl Nassib, a Pennsylvania native, Penn State grad, and Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman, said in a video posted to Instagram: "I actually hope that one day videos like this and the whole coming out process are not necessary," via KDKA-TV. 
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.

Yesterday's answer: Reciprocity

Congrats to our daily winners: David I., Craig W., Mary Ellen T., Irene R., Mike B., Bruce T., Michelle T., Bill C., Bob R., Sherri A., Barbara F., Elaine C., David S., Al M., Christine M., Chris M., Yvette R., Ann and John P., Janet T., Barbara A., Susan D., Don H., Dennis M., James B., George S., Dianne K., Paul H., Doris T., Joel S., David W., Gina L., Bill E., Carol D., Myles M., Gail H., Elizabeth W., and Kim C.
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