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State Senate rakes in expense checks for holiday

January 14, 2011 | 12:13 pm

The state Senate met Friday for seven minutes, just long enough to listen to an invocation, say the pledge of allegiance, have the clerk read a bill title and make sure they can each collect $568 in per diem payments for Friday through Monday.

If the Senate had not held the Friday meeting, or at least done a "check-in" session in which members sign in but don’t meet, lawmakers would have missed out on the $142 daily expense checks for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, which is a state holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

That is because the state Constitution says that Senators are eligible to collect per diem for every day that they are not in recess for more than three calendar days. The Senate also plans a Friday session in March just before the three-day weekend that ends with the Cesar Chavez Day holiday that Monday.

Per diem is provided tax-free to lawmakers who live outside the Sacramento area to cover their living expenses while engaged in legislative business away from their districts. The payments have been so controversial that some state officials have talked of doing away with them.

With the state about to ask voters to approve a tax measure this summer, some observers said holding a short session to trigger a flow of expense checks does not look good.

"It seems like this is one of the areas where more economy is called for," said David Kline, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers Assn. "We would recommend they schedule their meetings more efficiently."

Senate Republican leader Bob Dutton of Rancho Cucamonga feels justified to accept his per diem because he remained on the job Friday even after the seven-minute floor session, a spokeswoman said.

"He is here in his office working today,'' said Jann Taber. Dutton is flying back to his Southern California district later Friday and is not scheduled to be in Sacramento on Saturday, Sunday or Monday, she said.

As for whether the session was necessary, Taber said that is the call of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Steinberg, noted that the session allowed Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) to use his invocation to honor the civil rights work of King in advance of Monday's holiday, when the Senate will not be meeting.

Hedlund also said that holding the meeting allowed the introduction of a bill read on the floor, and means the desk is open for legislators to introduce other bills throughout the day.

"This is a time of year when bills are being introduced and things are starting to ramp up, and we need to do the business of the house,'' Hedlund said.

He denied that the session was solely called to keep the per diem flowing over the long holiday weekend. Steinberg is among a handful of lawmakers who do not accept the payments because they live near the Capitol.

-- Patrick McGreevy