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California legislators' inaction hits them in the pocketbook

The state controller withholds their per diem and travel expenses because the treasury has run out of cash.

February 05, 2009|Patrick McGreevy and Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — Thousands of state employees learned Wednesday that they will not be reimbursed for travel expenses until a budget deal is reached, as lawmakers' failure to strike such an agreement with the governor came back to bite them in their own wallets.

"We are delaying per diem and travel expenses to all state employees, including legislators," said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for state Controller John Chiang.

Inspectors of the state's nursing homes, hospitals, bridges and dams, for example, will have to temporarily absorb the cost of getting to those places. The state doesn't have the cash, Jordan said, and is not required by law to make the payments.

Chiang already is deferring state tax refunds, college grants and aid to the poor. Now, he also is withholding the $173 a day that legislators get to help defray the expense of having a second home in the capital.

Lawmakers did little complaining about their own predicament but called on the controller to exempt employees doing inspections and other public safety work.

"How do you have consumer protection" if workers can't travel, said Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). "There is a reason when the government sends out inspectors."

For rank-and-file employees, the controller's move could prove costly. Some workers -- notably those who handle regulatory oversight of various departments or industries -- travel as many as three weeks each month and pay for it on personal credit cards. If the state doesn't repay them quickly, they could get hit with steep finance charges.

"Essentially, you're loaning money to the state of California to conduct its business," said S. E. Smith, a steward for Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents thousands of state workers.

Don Killmer, an Education Department consultant, was traveling on state business to a conference in Florida when he got the bad news.

"It's getting old giving my money to the state instead of the other way around," Killmer said. "The bank of Don is closed. This is ridiculous."

Kristen Haynie, a spokeswoman for the California Assn. of Professional Scientists, said inspectors of facilities such as food-processing plants and hospitals have already been hit hard financially by the governor's recent executive order that forces them to take two days off per month without pay.

"This is going to interfere with their ability to do their job," she said of the controller's order.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, will continue to receive their six-figure salaries while they wait for reimbursements of as much as $4,800 a month.

Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster) called the per diem suspension "appropriate." But he said Chiang could have generated a lot more cash for the state by using his vote on the State Lands Commission to allow new drilling for oil off the California coast, which Chiang recently voted against for environmental reasons.

Runner called the deferral of travel expenses "political grandstanding."

Romero seemed resigned.

"I'm brushing off my American Express card," she said, "and I guess I'm going to have to max out on it until we get through everything."

Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) said he was not surprised.

"Obviously, we have two lives and two households to pay for when we are up here, and it's not cheap," he said. "But we are asking everybody else to make sacrifices, so we should too."

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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