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Commuting Becomes Way of Life for Lawmakers


Soon after Terry B. Friedman made the jump from legal-aid attorney to state assemblyman, he also made a jump in automotive style. He gave up driving a 1983 Volvo and began leasing a sleek 1987 Pontiac 6000 to get around in the 43rd Assembly District, which covers much of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.

Likewise, freshman Republican Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner, representing the Southeast area's 54th District, also got a lease allowance for a new car. He now drives a 1987 Chrysler New Yorker when traveling near his home in Lakewood.

The cars, just one example of the benefits provided to California legislators, reflect the highly mobile life styles that most lawmakers lead while serving in Sacramento. When not commuting to receptions and speeches in their districts, they are racking up air miles to and from the Capitol.

"If I couldn't come home Tuesday nights I wouldn't be happy," said Friedman, who returns to Los Angeles after the Assembly's Tuesday session to be with his wife, Elise Karl. He is back in Sacramento on Wednesday morning and typically returns again to Los Angeles on Thursday evening after the week's second meeting of the Assembly.

Initially, Friedman had to wake up at 5:45 on Monday mornings to catch the 7:30 flight out of Los Angeles International Airport, his wife said. But after moving recently to a new home in Laurel Canyon, he gets up at 5:20 a.m. for a 6:55 flight out of Burbank Airport.

"I drive to the airport (and) run to catch the plane I'm always late for," Friedman said. But so far, he said, the travel is not as bad as he had expected. He catches up with his reading on the plane, and a Capitol sergeant-at-arms meets him at Sacramento Municipal Airport and chauffeurs him to his office. On nights he stays in Sacramento, Friedman shares a condominium with his close friend, Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), about seven minutes from the Capitol.

Zeltner, whose wife, Patricia, travels with him, leaves for the capital each Monday morning and usually returns to Lakewood on Thursday afternoon. Like Friedman, Zeltner is issued a car from the Capitol motor pool--a new Ford Tempo--while in Sacramento, and is whisked to and from the airport by a sergeant-at-arms.

The legislators, who make $37,105 a year, receive a state car and fuel allowance, a $75-a-day tax-free living allowance seven days a week when the Legislature is in session, and liberal health and retirement benefits. They received one additional benefit in May when Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) liberalized travel policies, permitting Assembly members to bill the state for up to four round-trip flights a month to their home districts.

The change could save some legislators as much as $8,300 a year.

"On the one hand, I feel a little bit funny about it," Friedman said of the various perks. "But . . . literally what's happened here is that there are a number of things provided in lieu of salary. I think if the salaries were at another (higher) level then it would be inappropriate to have" the benefits.

Zeltner, who had been using campaign funds and his own money to pay commuting expenses for himself and his wife, expressed delight with the new flight policy. Zeltner has even started a breakfast club of political supporters to help defray those costs. Members, who pay to dine with him, have helped him raise $7,500.

The new policy "was a move in the right direction," he says, adding that he could never understand why it should be necessary to use campaign funds to pay for flight expenses.

Besides the expense, shuttling back and forth to Sacramento has other drawbacks. Zeltner finds he has less free time for his personal business, such as maintaining his Lakewood home. "I might say my house has gone to pot. . . ." he said. "My garage is a mess."

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