Emails show Pro Tem staffer asked Senators to show up for check-in

An email from a consultant to Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, appears to show his office recruiting Senators to show up for a check-in session last Friday — a session that allowed Senators to collect per-diem payments over the long holiday weekend.

According to Steinberg’s staff, holding a check-in session before a long weekend is customary because of rules that require a quorum to be present for certain Senate business to be done.

Check-in sessions are not full-fledged floor sessions, in which lawmakers debate bills and cast votes. Rather, a check-in session is an administrative procedure that allows legislative business to be done without the body actually meeting.

In order to check in, it is enough for a lawmaker to show that they are in Sacramento. This can be as simple as driving through the parking garage in the Capitol basement and checking in momentarily with a Sergeant of their house.

Check-in sessions often allow legislators to collect their $141.86 daily per diem payment, meant to compensate out-of-town legislators for the cost of traveling to and living in Sacramento while performing their jobs. Per diem is available to all members, and is tax-free for members whose principal residence is over 60 miles from Sacramento. It continues to be paid as long as a legislative house does not go four full days without meeting.

In order to collect the payments, and for Senate business to be done, a quorum of 21 senators must be present. In this case, a Friday check-in allowed Senators to collect the payment through the Monday Martin Luther King Day holiday—making it worth $567.84.

Multiplied by 37 senators—the 37th district seat became vacant when John Benoit resigned Nov. 30 to join the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, while the neither the Sacramento-based Steinberg or Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, accept per diem—the cost of extending per diem across the long weekend comes out to $21,010.08 for the Senate. The Assembly, with 78 of its 80 seats currently occupied, also held a check-in session last Friday.

Holding a check-in session before a three-day holiday weekend is “traditional” in both California legislative houses, said Bob Stern, president of the watchdog group the Center for Governmental Studies.

“It’s basically, ‘Please help your colleagues by showing up so we can all get some money,” Stern said.

There have been numerous press stories about these types of check-in sessions. But Stern added: “I’ve never seen this before, where they’re begging people to show up so everyone can get paid.”

The email request came from a Steinberg staffer at 5:01 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12. Addressed to 20 high-level senate staffers, mainly chiefs of staff, it read: “I understand that all of your members are busy in their districts on Friday; however, at this time, we have far too many members who have asked to be excused from check in session on Friday. I need 11 of you to pull back your (requested absences), please. Please let me know if your member can change their plans.”

The email appears to have worked. According to the Jan. 15 Senate Daily File, a quorum of 21 senators showed up that day — including at least eight whose chiefs of staff were sent the email.

 Multiple emails went out last week from Rules and the Pro Tem’s office, going back and forth about whether there would be a check-in session or not.

According to Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for Steinberg, the reason for holding check-in before a long weekend isn’t so that senators can get paid, but so that Senate business can be done. A quorum must be available for the Senate Desk to be open to allow legislation to move. According to Senate records, five bills moved across the desk that day for various procedural reasons.

“If we don’t have 21 members here, we can’t do anything,” Barankin said. “By having 21 members here, the desk was able to process the public safety bill by the legislative deadline.”
Per diem payments, and legislative pay overall, are down. The Citizens Compensation Commission reduced the daily rate for $170 to the current level last year as part of an overall cost-cutting effort. The reduced payments went into effect on New Years’ Day.

Still, the per diem payments—and the circumstances under which they’re paid—are likely to remain controversial to some government watchdogs. In 2008, for instance, then-Sen. Tom McClintock was the focus of a Los Angeles Times piece that noted he had accepted $306,000 worth of per diem payments in 12 years in the Senate and Assembly representing a Southern California district—all while he was living with his family in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove.

“What’s troubling about it to me is that the legislature has ton of work they should be doing to solve California’s problems,” said Derek Cressman, western states regional director for the watchdog group Common Cause. “If they’re creating make-work to run up larger tab, that’s not constructive. It’s like they’re inventing a reason to come in.”

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