SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — 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 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.
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 next 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 sought information about lawmakers’ vehicles and the cost to taxpayers as part of an ongoing examination of California legislative records and spending. The record-keeping officers of the Assembly and Senate supplied the information in response to a formal request.
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.
“It just says, ‘What’s ours is ours; the rules don’t apply to us,”‘ said Charles Murray, chairman of the California Citizens Compensation Commission, an independent body that sets the compensation for lawmakers and constitutional officers. “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.”
The Legislature’s vehicle program dates to the 1950s, when lawmakers decided it was cheaper to buy cars and gas than to be reimbursed by the mile. Jon Waldie, the Assembly’s chief administrative officer, said he believes the rationale remains valid, particularly with the Internal Revenue Service’s standard business reimbursement rate at 50 cents per 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.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be looked at, and we could revisit this as well,” said Dutton, who drives a 2005 Chevy Tahoe under the program.
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 — 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 said it could not provide information about how many miles each vehicle was driven or where lawmakers drive their vehicles because it does not keep track.
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.
The amount lawmakers contribute varies greatly, depending on the cost of the vehicle they choose. Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, contributes $31.02 a month toward her 2005 Honda Accord hybrid, while Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Yuba City, pays the most, $397.10, toward his 2009 Ford Edge. Dutton pays $38.79 a month for his Tahoe.
Under the reductions approved last year by the compensation commission, 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 for lawmakers or statewide officials.
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.
Calderon likes an American-made car roomy enough to ferry staff members to events around his district, said spokesman Bob Jimenez.
Because the state’s monthly payments are capped, Calderon, Cedillo and other lawmakers who choose expensive cars pay the difference out of their pockets.
“The taxpayers aren’t being burdened with him driving a Cadillac any more than they are with a lawmaker driving a Prius,” Jimenez said.
Even so, those lawmakers reimburse the state for just a fraction of the vehicle’s purchase price.
Cedillo, for example, pays the state $373.64 a month to lease his 2007 Lexus, or $4,483 per year. If he continued paying that amount for his entire four-year Senate term, Cedillo will have reimbursed the state a total of $17,934, or 34 percent of the vehicle’s total purchase price.
Most states reimburse lawmakers’ mileage for official business. Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania allow their state lawmakers to check out motor pool vehicles for official trips, while Florida and Minnesota let them use rental cars. New York and the New Jersey Assembly (but not its Senate) provide vehicles only for their top leadership.
In California, taxpayer-purchased vehicles also are provided to the top five unelected administrators of the Senate and Assembly at a total cost of $180,500.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)