CA lawmakers keep vehicle perk on taxpayers’ dime |

CA lawmakers keep vehicle perk on taxpayers’ dime

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. and#8212; California lawmakers enjoy a luxurious perk in a state that has been slashing billions of dollars from its budget: Taxpayer-provided cars.

The state purchases cars for lawmakers under a decades-old program, spending more than $5 million for the latest suite of vehicles that includes a $55,000 Cadillac sedan and a $52,000 Lexus hybrid.

Local representatives’ rides include Assemblyman Dan Logue’s (R-Linda) 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid at $48,499 and outgoing Sen. Sam Aanestad’s (R-Grass Valley) 2006 Chrysler 300, which cost $11,200.

The Legislature buys the vehicles outright, then leases them to lawmakers at a state-subsidized rate. The Legislature determines the amount lawmakers must pay above the monthly vehicle allowance, if any, and deducts that from their paychecks.

Logue pays $229 a month over the state subsidy for his vehicle; Aanestad $73.30.

The benefit survives despite the state’s financial mess, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called legislators into a special session next week to address a $6 billion deficit. They already have cut programs such as adult dental care and health care programs for children from low-income families, and more cuts are likely on the way.

The compensation and benefits given to California lawmakers has come under intense criticism in the last year. Legislative officials fought an 18 percent cut in lawmakers’ pay and benefits in 2009 while other state employees were enduring three-day-a-month furloughs.

The reductions eventually were approved, along with lowering monthly vehicle allowances for lawmakers.

and#8220;It just says, and#8216;What’s ours is ours; the rules don’t apply to us,’and#8221; said Charles Murray, chairman of the California Citizens Compensation Commission, an independent body that sets the compensation for lawmakers and constitutional officers. and#8220;I think in tough economic times, all these little sweetheart deals, all these perks, start to come to the surface and people start to ask questions.and#8221;

The vehicle program dates to the 1950s, when lawmakers decided it was cheaper to buy cars and gas than to be reimbursed by the mile.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dutton, a Republican from Rancho Cucamonga, said he believes the current system is cheaper than reimbursing legislators for each mile they drive, but also said the program should be re-evaluated as lawmakers look for areas to cut costs.

Taxpayers spent $3.5 million to buy the 99 vehicles lawmakers use when they visit their home districts.

The Assembly spent another $1.4 million to buy 49 Toyota Camry Hybrids for 51 lawmakers who live far from the state capital and use the vehicles when they are in Sacramento. The Senate spends an additional $81,000 a year to lease 25 vehicles for senators’ use in Sacramento.

Their rides range from a $9,900 2004 Toyota Prius to a $55,000 Cadillac STS. The state spent an average of $35,250 on all vehicles lawmakers use in their districts.

Lawmakers pay a percentage of their vehicle’s cost and#8212; 10 percent for less expensive vehicles and more for higher-end models and#8212; through a payroll deduction. Taxpayers pick up the rest while also paying the gasoline costs for lawmakers, who are given state-issued charge cards.

The maximum amount the state will contribute toward a lawmaker’s vehicle was reduced from $350 to $287 in the Senate and from $400 to $328 in the Assembly. In June, the commission decided against any further cuts.

The most expensive vehicles are used by two Southern California Democrats. Sen. Ron Calderon of Monterey Park drives a $54,830 2006 Cadillac STS while Sen. Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles uses a $52,235 2007 Lexus LX 400H hybrid.

Because the state’s monthly payments are capped, Calderon, Cedillo and other lawmakers who choose expensive cars pay the difference out of their pockets.

and#8220;The taxpayers aren’t being burdened with him (Calderon) driving a Cadillac any more than they are with a lawmaker driving a Prius,and#8221; said spokesman Bob Jimenez.

Even so, those lawmakers reimburse the state for just a fraction of the vehicle’s purchase price.

Cedillo, for example, pays the state $4,483 per year for the Lexus, which only adds up to 34 percent of the vehicle’s cost over a four-year term.

California is the only state in the nation to provide vehicles to its rank-and-file lawmakers for unlimited use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most states reimburse lawmakers’ mileage for official business.

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