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About that free lunch

What's with those extra meals at public expense for state senators? It's enough to turn your stomach.

November 08, 2011
  • Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, left, talks Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro and Senate budget committee chair Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, after the Senate session at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., June 13, 2011.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, left, talks Sen. Ellen… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

Hey, California state Senate: You're kidding, right? You didn't really charge the state $111,316 for lunch and snacks last year. You didn't really think that was some kind of entitlement you earned for working through the noon hour in the Capitol as debate over the last Schwarzenegger budget dragged through the summer. Tell us you were planning to pay it back, seeing as you each already get $95,291 a year in salary (more for those in leadership posts), plus another $143 per day to pay for your expenses, like, well, lunch.

Times staff writers Shane Goldmacher and Patrick McGreevy reported Sunday on the Senate's free meals program — "free" meaning free to the members of the Senate, but charged to the taxpayers. Last year's budget was so late that the state was obliged to suspend payments to child-care centers and other service providers and contractors, but they didn't get taxpayer-subsidized lunches. They didn't even get their contracts paid on time.

Come on senators, get a clue. The point is not how much better that $111,316 could have been spent (although, come to think of it, the money might have provided a few thousand decent lunches for the children, seniors and disabled whose state assistance you were so busy cutting). The point is that at a time when the state and the people it serves have to make do with less, you're triple-dipping. Your salaries are high enough to pay for lunch. Your per diems are high enough to pay for lunch. Yet you're billing the state.

We almost hate to ask, but here goes: During that summer in 2010 when you had to actually stay in Sacramento until your work was done, weren't you already being wined and dined by donors and lobbyists? Weren't you already getting free lunches? Of course you were.

Stories about politicians feeding at the public trough can get pretty tiresome, especially in California, where we so often lay the blame for late budgets and gridlock solely at the feet of supposedly smarmy politicians. We as Californians let ourselves off too easily, forgetting that the budget is late not because our leaders are inept but because we're just as divided over what to cut as they are. Senators, you almost had us (well, a few of us, anyway) thinking that you didn't deserve all those nasty things people say about you.

And then we find out about this, and it turns out you're exactly the cartoonish, self-serving pols that angry taxpayers rail against. Senators, please. Buy your own lunch. Pay back what you took. Now.

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