Saturday, February 27, 2010

Toohil Goes After Eachus On Per Diem Scam

In yesterday's Standard Speaker an article appeared by Jim Dino where Tara Toohil, announced candidate for Pennsylvania's 116th legislative district, takes on Todd Eachus over the statewide abuse of per diems paid to legislators.

Certain legislators including Eachus are using their own rules which they pass to justify a practice as "legal" to collect per diem payments even though they don't have to produce receipts for any expenses. In turn those payments which are meant to reimburse for food and lodging appear to subsidize, tax-free, the purchase of second and third homes in Harrisburg for legislators. There is no question that per diems on a national level were meant to reimburse employees for expenses they incur, not mortgage payments they want to make.

Here's what House Rule 14 states in part:

A member who attends a duly called meeting of a standing or special committee of which he or she is a member when the House is not in session or who is summoned to the State Capitol or elsewhere by the Speaker, or the Majority or Minority Leader of the House, to perform legislative services when the House is not in session shall be reimbursed per day for each day of service, plus mileage to and from the member's residence, at such rates as are established from time to time by the Committee on Rules but not in excess of the applicable maximum mileage rate authorized by the Federal Government.

An employee of the House summoned by the Speaker or the Majority or Minority Leader of the House to perform legislative services outside of Harrisburg shall be reimbursed for actual expenses and mileage to and from the employee's residence. Such expenses may be paid by the Speaker, Majority or Minority Leader, if they agree to do so, or shall be paid by the Chief Clerk from appropriation accounts under the Chief Clerk's exclusive control and jurisdiction, upon a written request approved by the Speaker, or the Majority or the Minority Leader. District office employees are only permitted to be reimbursed from an account under the control of the Chief Clerk when traveling to Harrisburg for a training program sponsored by either caucus or for travel to a legislative conference approved by the Speaker, the Majority Leader or the Minority Leader. All other travel by district office employees may be reimbursed from the member's accountable expenses or an account under the control of the Speaker, the Majority Leader or the Minority Leader.

Basically the employees of the Commonwealth must abide by the same rules private industry establishes for employee expenses but their bosses chose to make their regulations circumvent the true intent of per diems.

"This abuse of the system is another reason why I'm running for office," Tarah Toohil, Eachus' likely GOP opponent in the November general election, said in a statement this week. "It is wrong for Todd Eachus to collect per diem money while owning a home in Harrisburg. It is wrong for him to use per diems to pay his mortgage and make a property investment for himself. This money must be repaid to the taxpayers."

After addressing a Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce contingent Thursday, Eachus defended his actions, and criticized Toohil for what he called a negative campaign.

"I've filed all of the information required by the Internal Revenue Service," Eachus said. "Everything has been done to the letter of the law in the 14 years I've been a state representative.

"I'm hoping not all of this campaign will be mudslinging," he continued. "Who this young attorney is, to me, is unclear. But so far, this campaign has been negative. I'm hoping in this campaign, she can focus on the real issues, like what she proposes to do about jobs, health care, and access to health care for seniors, not just a negative campaign. People are sick of the negativity."

Mudsling to one person is accountablity to another. The issue of unaccountable per diems is not a negative campaign. It is highlighting the need for more government reform.

Here's what Todd Eachus had to say in a story by Robert Swift back in November, 2009 about the per diems he racked up during the budget debacle.

Eachus pointed out that lawmakers - unlike the governor - don't have a taxpayer-funded residence to stay in when they are in Harrisburg.

"These (per diems) are real expenses," he added. "It's a federally allowable expense. Many people think it's income, but it's not.

Well, Todd, who is funding your home in Harrisburg that you paid for with per diem money? If they are real expenses please provide the taxpayers with receipts for the lodging and the meals you claim are real.

Per diems are meant to reimburse for actual expenses. Legislators are treated to meals by lobbyists where no need for reimbursement can be justified in most people's minds. According to the Bureau of State Employment nearly 80,000 people are employed by Pennsylvania government. It's a shame that 253 of them want to abide by a different rule than the rest.

To Eachus's claims of negative campaigning legislators in Alaska are facing the same tough questions regarding per diems.

Hard-working House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, led all legislators last year in collecting out-of-session per diem, an extra pay boost that lawmakers get while working on legislative business when not in session.

Empire calculations from Legislative Affairs Agency data show that Chenault was paid $89,250 last year for serving as a legislator, tops among his peers.

Among the factors that go into total pay are last year's official salary of $24,012 for most legislators, per diem paid during the session of $189 a day for most legislators, and per diem paid for days worked outside session of $150. Some legislators, such as Chenault, took their office expense accounts as salary as well.

That brought average legislator pay last year to $65,400.

NOTE: In Pennsylvania the House Speaker made $122,254.00 this year and legislators are paid $78,315.00 this year as a base salary plus all the perks and benefits.

Mr. Eachus is so quick to call for public hearings. Why doesnt' he call one on the per diem issue? Or better yet look at what happened in Massachusetts over legislative per diems.

Legislators to file per diems as taxes
By Bob Katzen/Beacon Hill Roll Call
Posted Oct 05, 2009 @ 01:17 AM

Beacon Hill Roll Call has learned that for at least several decades, the W2 tax forms received by thousands of former and current legislators have not included millions of dollars in state money used to pay per diems to these legislators.

This all changed when the state and the IRS hammered out an agreement that beginning in 2008, the state would include the per diem income on legislators' W2 forms. The state went further and in 2009 began withholding taxes each pay period on the per diems just as it does on legislators' regular income. The agreement did not include going back to any prior years in which a legislator might not have paid any state or federal taxes on the per diems.

Defenders of the per diem agreement with the IRS say that the snafu was the fault of the state and not of individual legislators. They argue that many legislators have diligently paid taxes on their per diems for the past several decades. They say that the state should not go on a witch hunt and start tracking down the tax returns of thousands of legislators to see who, if anyone, did not paid taxes on the money.

Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation has a different idea. She said, "As so many of these tax-avoiders like to tell us, taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Those who did not declare the per diems as income and who did not pay taxes on it should estimate what they owe the IRS and the state, and pay it."

Mr. Eachus & Company should be thankful they don't work for the state of Missouri.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has proposed freezing the expense allowances of state legislators for two years, although state law would give them an 18 percent raise.

The daily allowance is used to cover lodging and meals in the capital and equals 80 percent of the federal per diem for Jefferson City.

In an interview, Schaefer reprimanded federal officials for accepting increases in their daily allowances while many Americans are losing jobs.

“In dealing with an extremely tight budget at a time when there are so many people who have lost their jobs or have the threat of losing their jobs, it’s inappropriate at this time to take an automatic increase,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer said he drafted the bill as a signal that legislators are serious about tightening the state’s budget. With the federal per diem increase, Missouri’s lawmakers will receive $103.20 each day they are in session, on top of their base salary of $35,915 a year.

If the bill becomes law, per diem would remain at $87.20 per day, the same amount legislators received during the 2009 legislative session.

Mr. Eachus and Company should be thankful Pennsylvania isn't Tennessee.

Lawmakers have claimed more than $1 million in daily pay for their work during the first half of 2009 — over and above their $19,009 annual salary — and with the decline in state tax receipts, some are calling on Tennessee's 132 senators and representatives to curb expenses.

In just the first three months of the year, state representatives collected an average of $6,300 in daily payments for their work. Over that same period, senators received roughly the same amount, plus $8,200 in the second quarter, records show. House records for the second quarter are to be released soon.

These "per diem" payments, purportedly for expenses such as hotel rooms, food and other incidentals, serve as a backdoor salary for legislators who are supposed to work only part time, critics say. This is especially true for Nashville-area lawmakers, who often spend the night at home.

Pennsylvania Legislators= $78,315.00
Massachusetts Legislators= $65,400
Missouri Legislators= $35,915.00
Alaska Legislators= $24,012.00
Tennessee Legislators= $19,009.00

Todd, about that public hearing???

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