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California lawmakers keep perk of taxpayer-funded vehicle

This taxpayer-provided Chrysler 300, parked at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., is driven by state Sen. Sam Aanestad. Most legislators pay only a small percentage of a vehicle’s cost.

Associated Press

This taxpayer-provided Chrysler 300, parked at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., is driven by state Sen. Sam Aanestad. Most legislators pay only a small percentage of a vehicle’s cost.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California lawmakers enjoy a perk that seems like a luxurious amenity in a state that has been slashing billions of dollars from its budget: taxpayer-provided cars.

The state purchases cars for lawmakers to drive around their districts and the capital, spending more than $5 million for the latest suite of vehicles that includes a $55,000 Cadillac sedan and a $52,000 Lexus hybrid.

Lawmakers are enjoying the benefit at a time when the state is in a financial mess and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called legislators into a special session this week to address a $6 billion deficit. Lawmakers 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.

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. The Associated Press obtained information about lawmakers' vehicles from the recordkeeping officers of the Assembly and Senate.

The Senate will review the vehicle program as it seeks to reduce its operating costs for the third consecutive year, Nathan Barankin, spokesman for the Senate president pro tem, Darrell Steinberg, said Friday in response to the AP's story.

"The real question is, is there a cheaper, more efficient way of providing transportation for lawmakers to do their job?" he said.

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

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

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

The most common alternative to legislative cars, reimbursing lawmakers at the Internal Revenue Service's standard business rate of 50 cents per mile, would likely be more expensive, Barankin said.

At a reimbursement rate of 50 cents a mile, lawmakers would have to drive a collective 10 million miles to reach the $5 million taken from the general fund to buy the vehicles.

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. He drives a 2005 Chevy Tahoe under the program.

The lawmakers' 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 — 10 percent for less expensive vehicles and more for higher-end models — 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 Legislature buys the vehicles outright, then leases them to lawmakers at a state-subsidized rate. The amount lawmakers contribute varies greatly, depending on the cost of the vehicle they choose. Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, a Democrat from San Diego, contributes $31.02 a month toward her 2005 Honda Accord hybrid, while Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, a Republican from Yuba City, pays the most, $397.10, toward his 2009 Ford Edge. Dutton pays $38.79 a month for his Tahoe.

California lawmakers keep perk of taxpayer-funded vehicle 12/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:27pm]

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