Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, left, talks Sen. Ellen… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
Reporting from Sacramento — For state senators, there is such a thing as a free lunch. And dinner. And breakfast.
On an August day last year when California deferred a $2.5-billion payment to public schools because it didn't have its finances in order, the Senate took a break from bickering over legislation to lunch on the taxpayers' dime.
The public picked up the $935 tab for an assortment of meats, cheeses and breads from a local Italian deli. Four days earlier, the state bought 90 meals for 36 senators — who also receive a tax-free $143 per diem for Sacramento expenses — and staffers. They lunched on teriyaki chicken breast, rice pilaf, salad and fresh-baked cookies for $1,659, according to a Times review of Senate receipts.
Assembly members usually pay for their own meals. But while the state was withholding money from hundreds of small businesses, child-care centers and the disabled because of a budget standoff that dragged on for 115 days, senators charged taxpayers for more than $23,000 worth of food.
An additional $2,900 a month was paid for granola, yogurt and snacks of fresh fruit (pears, white nectarines, Clementines) and sweets (Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Klondike bars and snickerdoodle cookies), the receipts show.
This year, the Senate has spent at least $111,316 in taxpayer funds on food, an increase of more than 10% over the previous 12 months, while working to cut 6% from the budget for state services.
"It is frustrating when you hear that kind of stuff," said Molly Nocon, chief executive of Noah Homes, which provides state-subsidized residential care for 70 San Diego adults with cerebral palsy, severe autism and other disabilities.
State funding for her nonprofit corporation has been so reduced that it has turned to a local food bank to feed the residents, she said.
"We don't have the ability to go to a grocery store any more to shop for our food," Nocon said. "Obviously their [senators'] priority is not mine. My priority is not catering meals."
California senators' base pay is the highest in the nation at $95,291 a year.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) declined to be interviewed about the food expenditures. His spokesman, Mark Hedlund, said meals are provided only when Senate sessions extend through lunch or dinner hours and when members are not permitted to leave the Senate floor.
"It is true that there is a presumption that some portion of per diem covers meal expenses while in the capital," Hedlund said in an email. "But the Legislative Counsel has long opined that meals may be provided when members are on the floor and unable to eat elsewhere."
He said "a few" senators periodically chip in $100 or $200 for incidental expenses, including meals. And though some of the catering comes from such culinary standouts as Tex Wasabi, owned by Food Network star Guy Fieri, Hedlund said the Senate is not bringing in "specially prepared gourmet meals by a celebrity chef."
He also said snacks are provided only when the Senate is in session and has committee hearings: "Many members sit on multiple overlapping committees and may not have enough time to run out for a meal."
Hedlund blamed inflation, in part, for the rising food bill and said the Senate's overall expenses are expected to be down for the year.
"Anyone who hits the grocery store knows that food prices have gone up substantially over the past 12 months, second only to fuel prices," he said.
The Assembly bought one meal for members this year, on Sept. 8, for a long end-of-session meeting when the lawmakers could not leave. It cost taxpayers $1,485, according to John Vigna, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles).
Otherwise the leaders of the lower house collect money from each member to pay for meals, often deducting it from their paychecks.
"We just don't want to have the taxpayer picking up the tab for lunches and meals when the members can do it themselves," Vigna said.
The Senate's free meals left a sour taste for Lew Uhler, head of the California-based National Tax Limitation Committee.
He said lawmakers are double-dipping.
"Somebody with a green eyeshade ought to be deducting the cost of lunch from that per diem," Uhler said.