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State Lawmaker Reimbursement System Under Scrutiny, But No Clear Path For Change

harrisburg_chambers.jpg
Matt Rourke
/
AP

On today’s program: The process for reimbursing state lawmakers for per diem spending has come under scrutiny, but those same lawmakers have done little to increase oversight; a bill will be heard this week in the House Transportation Committee seeks to allow undocumented residents to apply for drivers licenses in the commonwealth; and how the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is trying to engage with visitors and community members regarding a controversial diorama that’s been on exhibit for over 100 years.

State lawmakers get per diems with little oversight, but concerns have raised since a lawmaker got caught double dipping
(0:00 - 8:05)

State legislators can request per diems, in addition to their $90,000 annual salaries, but a joint investigation between The Caucus and Spotlight PA found these reimbursements have little oversight.

Former Delaware County Rep. Margo Davidson was charged with stealing from the state by filing fraudulent overnight per diem requests while accepting a campaign reimbursement for lodging elsewhere the same night.

“The legislature does not require its members to submit any receipts, any proof whatsoever that they are in fact staying in Harrisburg overnight when they say they are,” says Mike Wereschagin, an investigative reporter with The Caucus. “The people who write the rules benefit from it. There’s not a whole lot of appetite to change it.”

Wereschagin says there are some lawmakers who don’t take any per diems, but others have collected thousands of dollars from this provision. Representative Chris Sainato, for example, collected over $120,000 in reimbursements during the four years investigated.

“We found that over those four years, we’re [spending] over $200 million … on legislators outside of just showing up to work and getting paid for that,” says Wereschagin.

Some lawmakers are considering an overhaul. Rep. Seth Grove (R-York County) is leading a series of committee hearings to see if there are places to change these rules, others have called for a system where legislators provide receipts for reimbursement.

Bill allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for driver's licenses will get a hearing this week
(8:09 - 14:56)

A state bill that would let undocumented residents apply for driver’s licenses will be heard before the House Transportation Committee this Wednesday.

The bill, HB 279, has 43 cosponsors, including two Republicans. Sixteen states have already passed similar legislation.

Billy Reeves is a community policy organizer with Casa San Jose, a Pittsburgh non-profit that supports this bill. He says undocumented immigrants' inability to get driver's licenses "limits their mobility around society."

"Simple errands like going to the grocery store, going to your job: these life processes are limited because they don't have access to a car," he says.

This is the fourth time such a bill has been introduced in the commonwealth. The earliest iteration was proposed in 2011, followed by attempts to move it forward in 2017 and 2020.

"We've had multiple lobby days at Harrisburg where some Republican legislators have met with us and been receptive to our arguments.” says Reeves. Wednesday’s hearing will be the first time the bill has been heard in a committee.

According to Reeves, states with similar laws have seen traffic safety improve. A study by Stanford researchers found that California's version of the law decreased the number of hit-and-run accidents by 4,000 (nearly 10% of the state’s total hit-and-run accidents) within the first year of implementation.

"People who are unlicensed are about 10 times more likely to flee the scene of an accident just because of the fact that they're unlicensed," Reeves says. "It would be understandable that hit-and-run accidents would go down in this state as well."

Carnegie Museum updates exhibits to emphasize cultural awareness
(15:01 - 22:30)

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is incorporating more cultural sensitivity into its exhibits.

This comes after a 100-year-old diorama, “Lion Attacking a Dromedary,” was removed then returned to the museum floor last month. The diorama has been criticized for reinforcing cultural stereotypes and colonialist views, and researchers have discovered human remains within the diorama. The creators, the Verreaux brothers, are known to have used remains robbed from the graves of indiginous people for their work.

The diorama is now presented with signs clarifying and adding context to certain aspects of the exhibit, and also asking for feedback from visitors.

“We have a wonderful museum with a lot of halls that are beloved by people throughout Pittsburgh,” says Sarah Crawford, director of exhibitions at the museum. “Some of the halls are a little bit outdated, and so we're beginning to have conversations with visitors about what they're seeing.”

Crawford says the museum is making an effort to ensure people are engaging with these changes.

“Museums do a lot of visitor engagement and audience research,” she says. “Those are things we'll be doing in the coming years: actively speaking to visitors, actively speaking to the wider Pittsburgh public.”

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Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Hello! My name’s Rebecca Reese, and I’m a rising Junior English Writing / Digital Narrative & Interactive Design student at the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, I’m working as a production assistant for The Confluence. I’ve lived in the Pittsburgh area my entire life, and have a passion for technical audio production as well as social issues, especially those relevant locally. Funding of the Internship Program is made possible with a grant from the American Eagle Outfitters Foundation.
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