Monday, May 01, 2000

State paid to feed lawmakers during lengthy sessions

Take-out food and soda was served

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Legislators who receive a tax-free daily stipend to cover meals and other expenses were also provided more than $25,000 in food and drink at taxpayer expense in the 2000 session.

        Records obtained by the Associated Press show dozens of catered meals, from pizza to barbecue, Chinese and burgers; thousands of cases of soft drinks and bottled water, plus assorted snacks.

        Legislative Research Commission Director Bobby Sherman said last week he authorized the food purchases. The food was not only for legislators, but also staff members and as hospitality for visitors and constituents.

        “I consider it to be an appropriate expense and if given the chance I'd do it again and probably will,” said Mr. Sherman, who oversees the administrative arm of the legislative branch of government.

        Richard Beliles, head of the citizen lobbying organization Common Cause, said it just looks bad.

        “This sort of adds up to

        the perception, together with the pension increase, that there are too many different ways for a legislator to be compensated than the public really recognizes,” Mr. Beliles said. “And I think that's really a negative for increasing the confidence of the electorate in the legislature.

        “It's definitely double-dipping,” Mr. Beliles said.

        Legislators get $93.50 for each day of the legislative session to cover lodging, meals and incidental expenses. The figure is based on the amount provided to federal employees on assignment in Frankfort and is generally not reportable as income.

        The per diem allowance is separate from the pay legislators get — $153.57 for all House members and the half of the Senate serving terms that started in 1997. Senators whose terms expire this year were paid $109.31.

        The per diem and salary are paid for each day of the session — weekends and holidays included — a total of 102 days this year. Committee chairmen get additional money for presiding and elected leaders also get more pay.

        Legislators did a couple of things to improve their economic lot this session. An obscure addition to a bill passed during a late-night proceeding late in the session added an inflation index to legislative retirement. And legislators voted to raise their allowance for stationery during the sessions from $50 to $250 for House members and $500 for Senate members.

        Mr. Sherman said the food made things run more smoothly during late-night sessions and when meetings took place on weekends. Individual food orders were not taken and the convenience allowed lawmakers to continue working, Mr. Sherman said.

        “I consider it to be something that facilitates the process,” Mr. Sherman said.

        According to records examined by the AP, there were 1,191 cases of soft drinks purchased during the session. In addition, 3,740 cases of bottled water were purchased.

        Mr. Sherman said he did not look into whether there were cheaper alternative sources than the grocery store generally used.

        There were also dozens of bags of pretzels and potato chips, crackers and gallons of peanut butter — smooth and crunchy — and salsa.

        The catered meals were generally modest affairs, with pizza and barbecue as staples. Other times, orders were made for takeout Chinese and Mexican food along with fried chicken and burgers.

        Some legislators also had a sweet tooth, with dessert a regular feature of catered meals, especially pies.

        “Well, I thought we could get away with not feeding them dessert and I was wrong. We had to "quick-trip-it' to Baskin-Robbins and buy some ice cream pies,” said a note from a legislative staff member on one request for reimbursement. The seven pies cost $90.93.


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