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One plate may no longer be big enough to hold all the food state lawmakers and staffers can now buy on the taxpayer dime — or make that 230 dimes to be exact.

In a state where politicians clamor to be recognized as fiscally conservative, they have rolled out the buffet — for themselves, that is, and at $23 per meal.

The Legislature's Executive Board recently passed, and then reaffirmed this week, a new rule that allows group meals to be catered to those attending meetings that "promote the Legislature's interests, concerns or activities."

And now, the price for lunch or dinner can be as much as $23 per meal, up from the previous $9 allotted for lunch or $12 for dinner.

Whether it be roast beef, chicken, hamburgers, sub sandwiches, pizza or even steak, the Journal has determined that $23 can pay for a very fulfilling experience.

Belt-busting meals

At restaurants that cater in Rapid City, where prices are not that far off from Pierre, a $23 tab will provide enough food to satisfy even the heartiest lawmaker. At Jimmy John's, for example, that amount easily covers two boxed lunches that each costs $8.25 and feature an 8-inch sub, a small bag of potato chips, a pickle spear and a cookie, according to Denetta Buckingham, an assistant manager at the Mountain View Road location.

It would also cover the 50-cent per box delivery charge and still leave money for a beverage and a nice tip.

Hungry lawmakers who need even more sustenance can pay an extra dollar for each box and get two of what the menu identifies as a "GIANT" club sandwich — and still have money left over.

If five lawmakers want to go in together, they could share a $100 party sub that one Jimmy John's employee said "you could end world hunger with."

Beau Jo's Pizza in downtown Rapid City brings even more options to satisfy lawmakers not sated by the legislative process. The restaurant will cater buffet-style meals that can feature pizza, barbecued or baked chicken, roast beef, tacos as well as several side dishes for well under $23 a head.

Chris Baer, who co-owns the Colorado-style pizzeria, said they charge $12 to $14 per person for a bountiful lunch, which means a lawmaker would have to order enough for two people to exceed the upper meal limit. To cater a dinner, Beau Jo's charges from $13 to $18 per person, she said.

When told that lawmakers could spend as much as $23 of taxpayer money for a catered lunch, Baer remarked, "that's outrageous."

If lawmakers want to settle for a more traditional Midwestern lunch, they could make a call to Fuddruckers for burgers and fixings.

For just over $23, the restaurant that proclaims it has the "World's Greatest Hamburgers" will cater and serve two lunches that each offer a choice of hamburgers, hot dogs or a piece of chicken and two side dishes, according to manager Josh Amundson at the Rushmore Mall location.

And if lawmakers want to order pizza with their new extra dough, they can get their fill of one of America's favorite delivered foods. Dominos, for example, now has a special that offers a medium two-topping handmade pan pizza for $7.99, which still allows plenty of cash for a $5.99 order of stuffed cheesy bread, an oven-baked sandwich or eight chicken wings.

Even steak is not out of range for lawmakers now.

Canyon Lake Chophouse owner Carmen Derby said her establishment offers a broad range of options when catering meals, which can range from $10 to $20 per person. She also said that spending as much as $23 for a catered meal "is not out of line."

Derby said her fine dining establishment's prices depend on the type of food ordered; if it is just delivered or delivered and served; if paper plates or dishware is provided; and if the food is served hot.

"There is no one price," she said. "Filet mignon is a lot different than beanie weanies."

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Rise in reimbursement

The previous in-state per diem limit, or reimbursable expense allowance, for meals was $5 for breakfast, $9 for lunch and $12 for dinner, up to a maximum of $26 a day.

But those meals often required lawmakers to leave meetings to eat, which state Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said has led to breaks of longer than an hour in some cases, and consequently longer meetings.

The new rule was drafted by Legislative Research Council attorney Doug Decker, who points out this is "a meal policy, not just a lunch policy" and the guidelines reflect those established by the General Services Administration. Those guidelines allow as much as $23 for dinner in Pierre and $26 in Rapid City.

"This is from the federal GSA table and it provides an upper limit — not that you will get that much. I don't expect anyone will spend that much," said Decker, referring to the $23 limit.

He also said it has to be part of a group meal that is eaten during a legislative committee meeting, whether it be a standing committee during legislative session or an interim committee meeting during the nine months between legislative sessions. The tab is picked up by the Legislative Research Council.

Rapid City lawmaker Craig Tieszen tried this week to put the meal price back on the agenda for discussion by the Legislature’s Executive Board, which approved the rule 12-0 in April.

But he was rebuffed, or at least that’s what the chairman, Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, said when he ruled that a voice vote favored the nays.

Afterward, Tieszen said he wanted to discuss a lower amount for a catered lunch.

So while there may be no such thing as a free lunch for taxpayers, it's a different story for state lawmakers and their staffers who attend committee meetings throughout the year. And their piece of pie has just gotten bigger.

[This story has been changed to reflect a correction. Carmen Derby is the owner of The Chophouse.]

Journal correspondent Bob Mercer contributed to the report. Contact Patrick Butler at 394-8434 or at patrick.butler@rapidcityjournal.com.

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