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Capitol eatery keeps Alaska lawmakers fed -- at a loss

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 21, 2015

JUNEAU -- As state lawmakers contemplate painful cuts and look for efficiencies to close a $3.5 billion deficit, one line item in their own budget has so far received little scrutiny: the cafeteria in the Capitol building that costs $20,000 a month to operate during the 90-day legislative session.

The state's legislative lounge is staffed by a chef with a culinary degree and serves home-cooked meals like chicken breast with sweet potato gratin, and roasted red pepper and fennel salmon stew. Only current and former elected officials can eat there, though staff members, reporters and anyone else in the Capitol can order takeout. Everyone has to pay.

Several lawmakers Friday said they thought the lounge breaks even financially, though that's only true if staff salaries aren't included.

Those expenses amount to $21,500 each month, according to a breakdown provided by legislative staff. For the last two years, the lounge took in about $2,500 a month more in revenue than it paid out for food, though the salaries of the lounge's five employees cause it to operate at a loss.

The money comes out of the Legislature's $75 million annual budget -- which itself makes up only a small portion of the state's $6 billion annual spending plan. Nonetheless, legislative leaders here say that as they look for state agency savings to close a deficit pegged at $3.5 billion or more, they also intend to cut their own budget -- though they have not yet released a proposal saying how they'll do so.

Asked about the spending on the lounge, Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, the co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, characterized its costs as insignificant in the context of the overall budget picture.

"You're writing a story on the lounge with a $4 billion deficit?" he asked. "We're cutting the Legislature's budget -- whether it comes out of the lounge, I don't know."

The second-floor lounge is a unique space in the Capitol building that comes with its own mystique, since it's open only to legislators. A senior Senate staffer who accompanied a reporter on a tour Friday had never been inside.

The lounge is nothing special, sparsely decorated with leather chairs and five wooden tables lined up atop blue carpet on one side of a narrow rectangular room. A cooking area is on the other side.

At one end, there's a soda machine and a small cooler with bottles of water and fruit juices, while a few small peanut butter chocolate cookies sat on a platter late Friday.

The lounge's central appeal to legislators isn't that it's luxurious -- it's that no one else is allowed in, said chef Stefani Marnon. Staff members, lobbyists and the press are barred, though pages are allowed inside if a legislator needs to be retrieved.

Marnon said the lounge provides a service to elected officials who might have only a few free minutes between commitments to find a meal.

"There's no time," said Marnon, who has a degree from the New England Culinary Institute. "We all back here just make sure their blood sugar is level."

A $50 annual fee entitles legislators to free soda, but everything else costs money, Marnon said. Meals typically cost less than $10; a bowl of the salmon stew Friday was $4.50, while a lunch of crispy chicken breast with a smoky sweet potato gratin was $9. Half a sandwich with chips is $4 -- options include hummus, egg salad and roast beef.

The lounge also occasionally gets donated food, like king salmon from the city of Cordova and its chamber of commerce that recently sold for $9 with a kale and chickpea salad.

Access to the lounge is one of the perks that come with being a legislator -- others include the frequent receptions hosted in Juneau each week by interest groups, associations and even municipalities, where lawmakers and staff can find free food or drinks.

Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, said he rarely attends the receptions but often gets lunch at the lounge. As he walked to his fourth-floor office Friday with a Diet Pepsi from the lounge, he professed to having little knowledge about its cash flow.

"I don't have a clue -- I've never paid attention to it," he said. "I do know they make good tuna salad sandwiches."

Egan defended the lounge as a place for busy legislators and staff to purchase food without having to leave the Capitol, even though there's a Subway sandwich shop and at least a half dozen other places to buy lunch nearby.

He also said he'd been able to have conversations in the room with some of the most partisan Republicans and that the lounge "helps the camaraderie of the building."

But Egan said that "everything needs a look" as the Legislature examines the state budget.

Rep. Mark Neuman, the co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said he had little knowledge of the lounge and thought it recouped its costs. He said he rarely eats there and usually skips lunch while he works through the middle of the day.

"My wife's here, so I got some lunch today," he said.

At the governor's mansion, Gov. Bill Walker also has two staff members -- whose salaries average $52,000 -- who split kitchen duties, after former Gov. Sarah Palin eliminated a chef position in 2007.

The two staffers can cook "small, family-style meals" like soups, sandwiches and lasagna, spokeswoman Katie Marquette wrote in an email. Marquette said the staff members also do other tasks in the mansion, like housekeeping.

In the 2014 fiscal year, the governor's office spent $29,000 on food, Marquette added. She said Walker isn't planning on cutting the salaries of the staff members this year but is encouraging them "to be as fiscally prudent as possible" when buying household goods.

Jeff Landfield, a former state Senate candidate who has often criticized the Legislature's budget discipline, said in a phone interview that the Legislature's lounge expenses were symbolic, "even though it's not a lot of money."

"Why don't they just raise food prices?" he asked. "How can you ask other people to cut their budgets and reduce spending when you're not cutting yours, when you're doing things that are clearly unnecessary?"

In an interview in his office, Kelly, the Senate Finance Committee co-chair, said the lounge does, in fact, solve a "problem" for legislators: "We never leave here."

He promised that the Legislature would find its own savings, even if they haven't been identified yet.

"Fact is," he said, "we are reducing our budget."

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