SACRAMENTO — Speaker Willie Brown has quietly changed a long-standing policy and begun to permit Assembly members to charge the state for up to four round-trip flights a month to their home districts--a liberalization of allowable expenses that could amount to as much as $8,300 a year for some legislators.
Until now, members were reimbursed for just one round-trip per two-year legislative session and for authorized business, such as committee hearings outside the Capitol. This policy remains in effect in the Senate.
For years, Southern California lawmakers have complained about having to pay their way home out of campaign funds or their own pockets, while many northern lawmakers could drive home in their state-leased cars. Round-trip air fare from Sacramento to major Southern California airports now ranges from $130 to $260.
Susan Jetton, the Speaker's press secretary, said that the San Francisco Democrat believes that the previous policy "wasn't fair" to Southern California lawmakers.
The Assembly Rules Committee, which handles housekeeping matters, had wrestled with the issue without reaching a decision. Then last month, without making any public announcement, Brown issued a five-paragraph memo to all 80 Assembly members that, to an outsider, might seem to restrict travel reimbursement. Actually, it greatly liberalized the policy.
The memo, obtained by The Times, reads in part: "Effective May 1, 1987, during session members are limited to reimbursement for four round trips on a common carrier per month."
Bob Connelly, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee, said, "There's a feeling that Sacramento is remote from the center of gravity in the state."
So, he said, as a "matter of equity" the taxpayers should pay for weekly flights home during the legislative session, allowing members to meet with constituents or attend meetings.
Connelly figured the cost to the state would be $125,000 to $224,000 a year, depending on how many legislators took advantage of the new policy. Even at that, his cost projections were based on the lowest current fares.
If a lawmaker bought four tickets a month during the eight months the Legislature usually meets each year, the cost per legislator would be roughly $4,200 to $8,300, depending on the fares.
No Action Taken
The Senate also has talked about revamping its policy, but no action has been taken, said Cliff Berg, executive officer of the Senate Rules Committee.
For members of Congress, by comparison, an unlimited number of flights home for official business is permitted and paid for by the public through the members' office accounts.
Legislators currently receive a $37,105 annual salary; a tax-free expense allowance of $75 a day, seven days a week, when the Legislature is in session; a state-leased automobile; a gasoline credit card, and liberal health and retirement benefits.
Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), a member of the Rules Committee, said Brown issued the policy change after consulting with the legislative counsel's office and determining "that it was within his discretion to authorize district travel for official business."
Margolin said that until Brown's announcement, most Southern California legislators have used "their campaign committee resources to pay for their district travel."
Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), another member of the Rules Committee, said that the panel has discussed "how it's kind of unfair that Northern California representatives really didn't have any costs involved in the travel back and forth and the Southern Californians did.
"Willie decided he thought there was an inequity there," said Wright, who estimated that her weekly round-trip fare from Burbank costs $248.