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No more free food for California's state senators

Lawmakers decide to stop hitting up taxpayers for food when sessions run long. Instead they'll pay $2,000 a year to keep themselves fueled.

November 09, 2011|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — Under fire for spending $111,316 in taxpayer funds to feed themselves this year, state senators have decided to end the practice.

All members of the upper house will be billed $2,000 a year to pay for stocking the coffee room and to cover their meal expenses when sessions extend into the lunch or dinner hour, said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

The five-member Senate Rules Committee, which Steinberg chairs, voted Tuesday to implement the new system.

"It has been a long tradition in the Senate that our coffee room provides snacks for members on session days and meals in situations where the Senate remains in session over normal dining hours,'' Steinberg wrote in a memo to his colleagues. "However, not all traditions can or should be maintained indefinitely," he wrote. "Our institutional practices should reflect our best judgment as times and circumstances change.''

The Times reported Sunday that in addition to the public money the Senate has spent on food this year, taxpayers picked up the tab last year for more than $23,000 worth of meals during a 115-day budget standoff. An additional $2,900 a month paid for granola, yogurt, fresh fruit and sweet snacks during the impasse, according to a review of Senate receipts.

This year's expenditures were 10% more than last year's, even as lawmakers approved a 6% cut in the budget for services to Californians.

Lew Uhler, head of the California-based National Tax Limitation Committee, had criticized the meals spending as double dipping, because senators also get $143 per day, tax free, for expenses such as meals and lodging while they are in Sacramento.

Uhler welcomed the change Tuesday, saying senators "recognized the error of their ways…. I think most taxpayers would say 'Good riddance' to the practice.''

In a telephone poll of Rules Committee members Tuesday, Steinberg and Democratic Sens. Elaine Alquist of Santa Clara and Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles voted as the majority to change the policy. Republican Sen. Tom Harman of Huntington Beach voted no, and Republican Sen. Jean Fuller of Bakersfield was ill and missed the vote.

But Fuller believes senators can fend for themselves, without being billed by the Senate or charging taxpayers for what they eat on the job, according to her spokeswoman Julie Sauls. "There is a cafeteria in the Capitol," Sauls noted.

Harman did not respond to calls and emails from The Times seeking comment.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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