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California lawmakers stripped of state cars

The valuable perk will be replaced with a $300 monthly transportation allowance under a decision by a state panel that says the change will cut in half what taxpayers now spend on the legislators.

April 15, 2011|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

California lawmakers Thursday were stripped of a valued perk — a state-purchased car that has been replaced with a $300 monthly transportation allowance.

The California Citizens Compensation Commission, responsible for setting state officials' salaries and benefits, said the move would save more than $2.3 million over the next five years, cutting in half what taxpayers spend on lawmakers' transportation.

Not all legislators have state cars, but for those who do, taxpayers spend an average $7,300 a year — more than double the new allowance — on the vehicle purchase, gas, maintenance and insurance. Many lawmakers pay a small share of the purchase price.

Thursday's reduction was spurred in part by the budget crisis, commission members said.

"We're broke," Commissioner Charles Murray said at the panel's public meeting in Burbank. "You have to cut money somewhere."

The rule is scheduled to take effect in December.

The change could prove awkward for Gov. Jerry Brown, who is seeking to maintain cordial relations with lawmakers as he solicits their votes for his budget plan.

On Wednesday, Brown replaced Murray, an outspoken proponent of cutting lawmakers' compensation, as chairman of the seven-member body. New chairman Thomas Dalzell, a union official, tried unsuccessfully at Thursday's contentious meeting to delay a decision on the cars.

Dalzell, business manager of a Bay Area chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, argued that attorneys for the state had determined two years ago that the panel did not have authority over cars.

"I believe we are trying to affect something which our counsel has told us we may not affect," Dalzell said before abstaining from the 5-0 vote. Another new Brown appointee, Gap Inc. Vice President Wilma Wallace, was absent.

Brown has made only two appointments to the commission, which was created by voters in 1990; it remains dominated by appointees of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The panel decided Thursday not to cut lawmakers' salaries again but said it may revisit the issue if Brown cuts paychecks for other state workers to help close the budget deficit.

In 2009, commissioners slashed lawmakers' salaries and benefits by 18%, from $116,208 to $95,291 for all but legislative leaders, whose pay went from $133,639 to $109,584.

The base salary for California's legislators is the highest in the nation. Pennsylvania and New York are next, paying around $79,500, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

About 80 of the Legislature's 120 members have state cars, and some were not pleased to lose them Thursday.

Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles), said that given past cuts to lawmakers' pay and benefits, the latest action "seems punitive, and not in line with the commission's duty to size legislative compensation to the job."

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the move makes it harder for lawmakers to travel to and in their districts to connect with constituents.

"The arguments for cutting legislative salaries and benefits," he said, "have gone from being balanced, rational and a reflection of our economic times to simply trying to make a political point."

Many lawmakers say Republican members of the commission have unfairly criticized the Democratic-controlled Legislature for its spending practices.

A survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows most states do not supply cars for rank-and-file lawmakers. The 10 that do give the legislators access to a shared fleet. New York and New Jersey provide vehicles for top legislative leaders.

The car costs vary. In Sacramento, the most expensive is a Cadillac STS V-8 luxury sports sedan that the state bought for $54,830 for Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello). In 2009, The Times reported that Calderon also spent an average $83 a week on gasoline charged to taxpayers on a state-issued card.

Under current policies, the state buys the car and spreads part of the purchase price over a three- or four-year "lease" to the lawmaker, factoring in depreciation. The state pays most of the monthly cost out of the Legislature's budget. Many lawmakers pay about $100 to $200 a month toward the lease.

In January, Brown ordered state agencies to halt new car purchases and sell automobiles not essential for state business. The governor's authority does not extend to cars purchased by the Legislature for its members.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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