Pa. lawmaker calls for per diem reform, cites abuses

Brad Roae is a rank-and-file Republican from Crawford County who has had enough of per diem abuses in the Pennsylvania Legislature. He sent an email to all lawmakers Thursday under the heading “per diem reform.”

Roae must have seen the calendar in last week's story on abc27 News that showed the dozens of days the Legislature was in session and the hundreds of days that Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia) claimed per diems, mostly tax-free cash intended to reimburse lawmakers for legitimate business expenses. Cohen cashed for $39,333 in per diems in 2011.

Roae's email said, “a member collecting $39,000 in per diems tarnishes the image of the House. The public looks less favorably on the state House when they see this type of irresponsible behavior. Taxpayers correctly believe that excessive per diem money would be better spent on schools, hospitals or state parks.”

Roae offers several reforms in his email including the elimination of per diems on holidays. Cohen claimed per diems on  Easter and July 4 in 2011.

Roae would also eliminate per diems on Saturdays and Sundays if the day before or after is not a session day. Cohen claimed most Sundays and many Saturdays in 2011.

Roae would also put tighter restrictions on committee claims. Cohen is notorious for dropping into a committee meeting for a few minutes, signing in, and cashing out.

“Currently the only requirement is that a member has to be in the building and breathing and they can collect a per diem payment,” the email said.

Roae would require members to stay at least 30 minutes or half of a meeting in order to claim a per diem. Cohen is notorious at the Capitol for showing up in the final minutes of a meeting, and then signing a paper to be per diem eligible.

Rep. Sue Helm (R-Dauphin County) said she has seen him do it.

“At that point, I spoke up and I said something,” Helm said. “And I don't think he's ever come back to one of my committee meetings.”

Helm, like Roae, is outraged at Cohen's $39,000 claim.

 “I couldn't face my constituents if I did that,” she said.

Critics applaud Roae's attempts but wonder why leaders aren't getting behind the issue. Cohen's abuses have been legendary and documented for years, with no attempt to rein him in.

Watchdogs also say per diems don't need reform. They need to be scrapped altogether in exchange for receipt reimbursement.

“We could save millions and millions of dollars every year if they would just document legitimate expenses and get reimbursed rather than taking per diems,” said Tim Potts of Democracy Rising Pa.

Capitol sources tell me that with only a handful of fall session days before the election it is unlikely per diem reforms can happen before the end of this year.

Repeated attempts by phone and in person to contact Rep. Cohen were unsuccessful. Roae was also unavailable for comment.

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