Lease or reimburse? Pa. House lawmakers chose the latter for their state-sponsored travel

The bill now heads to the Senate, although some top Senate Republicans lease state vehicles

By: - April 12, 2022 4:45 pm

(Capital-Star file)

*This story was updated at 10:55 a.m. 4/13/22 with comment from Jake Corman’s office.

Pennsylvania lawmakers could have access to one less perk of the job under legislation that passed the state House on Tuesday.

In a 183-16 vote, the Republican-controlled lower chamber voted to ban lawmakers from leasing state vehicles for their own use.

The proposal is sponsored by state Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford, who argued that the practice presents the state with an increased risk of liability. 

While a private employer can check driving records when hiring and firing for misuse of a company car, lawmakers can access a vehicle without any checks, Roae argued.

When one gets into an accident, he argued it could be “a dream for a trial lawyer,” Roae told the Capital-Star.

While Roae did not name any names, his focus on liability appears to be a dig at his former colleague, state Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware. She was in multiple crashes in-state vehicles, causing $30,000 in damages picked up by taxpayers, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In an earlier floor debate last year, Davidson, who did not as of 2021 lease a public vehicle according to state records, compared the effort to get rid of the option to “cancel culture,” eliciting cheers and laughter from her colleagues.

She has since resigned office over unrelated corruption charges.

As of 2021, 25 House lawmakers — all Democrats — currently lease a state car, one of the many benefits of being a Pennsylvania state legislator.

The leases cost between $419 to $650 a month as of 2021, depending on the vehicle, House Clerk Brooke Wheeler said in an email.

At full price, that would cost taxpayers between $5,028 to $7,800 a year, but lawmakers also pay the House back a portion of the cost to cover personal travel. 

That price does include insurance, general maintenance and most repairs, if performed at a state-approved facility, Wheeler added in an email. 

The lease itself is covered by a $20,000 expense account every lawmaker has to reimburse some of their legislative expenses, from snacks to office supplies.

Consumables such as oil, tires, and wiper blades must be covered by the legislator, although they can pay for those items using their legislative expense account in some cases as well.

If using their own vehicle, lawmakers are paid for the mileage they rack up in legislative travel. The House reimburses lawmakers at the IRS rate of 58.5 cents per mile driven.

That means a round trip from Erie to Harrisburg for a week of session — similar to what sponsor Roae might make — would cost taxpayers roughly $351

With roughly 37 weeks of House held or scheduled this session, such a lawmaker could have taken roughly $12,600 in mileage reimbursements since 2021.

State Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, one of the leaseholders, referenced the argument in floor remarks.

“I don‘t believe the taxpayers sent me up here to buy a new car every two years by using the mileage reimbursement,” DeLuca said.

Those reimbursements would be partially paid by the same expense fund that car leases are paid out of or could come out of a separate, $2,300 expense account for recurring monthly expenses.

That total would also exclude any extra miles from other state business, such as in-district work or road meetings of House committees, and come on top of the chamber’s roughly $178 to $200 per diem rate for food and lodging on the road.

Roae acknowledged that mileage reimbursements may cost more than a leased state car, but argued that the liability concerns would make up for the difference.

But his fear of a big lawsuit against the state over bad driving shouldn’t be confined to lawmakers using a state car, Davidson told the Capital-Star.

She said that the Wolf administration raised concerns that lawmakers using their personal vehicles for state reimbursed business could raise the same liability concerns.

The Department of General Services, which manages the state’s vehicle fleet, did not reply to a request for comment on the policy.

Davidson isn’t the only one with a checked driving record. Both current and former lawmakers have been charged with DUIs. 

That includes state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who has three DUIs on his record. Another since-retired state representative was pulled over in suburban Harrisburg in 2017 with a blood alcohol content nearly three times the legal limit.

The lawmaker told the officer he was returning from dinner. When asked about how much he had to drink, he replied, “it’s part of my job,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In 1999, a Bucks County lawmaker driving their own vehicle even struck and killed a pedestrian in Harrisburg as he left the Capital City for his suburban Philadelphia district. He eventually resigned his seat and spent two years in prison.

Roae’s proposal now goes to the Senate. As of 2021, 11 senators, including three Republicans, use state vehicles.

Among the Republicans are powerful members of leadership, such as Browne — who as the Appropriations Committee Chairman plays a key role in budget negotiations.

The chamber’s top officer, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, used to lease a state vehicle, but a spokesperson said Wednesday that he had ended his lease last year.

Roae’s proposal also passed the lower chamber in 2018 but never received a vote in the Senate.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.