Reporting from Sacramento -- California lawmakers are about to lose one of their biggest perks — a car of their choice paid for mostly by taxpayers, but a legal snag could end up costing the public more.
A citizen panel appointed by the governor determined in April that the state's budget crisis, which was causing deep reductions in services to Californians, required some sacrifices by those making the cuts.
The Citizens Compensation Commission decided the state would stop buying cars, gas, maintenance and insurance for legislators — who repay a portion of the purchase price — and instead gave them a $300-a-month transportation allowance.
"That's the easiest way to save money and help balance the budget," said Commissioner Charles Murray, a Los Angeles businessman.
But even as the Senate and Assembly prepare to collect the cars Thursday and auction them, a dispute over the commission's authority is jeopardizing the expected savings.
State Controller John Chiang notified lawmakers last week that they would not be getting the $300 allowance because the state attorney general has determined the commission acted beyond its powers in approving the benefit.
Instead, lawmakers will be reimbursed 55.5 cents a mile for using their personal cars on legislative business. Requiring lawmakers to file for mileage instead of receiving a lump sum is needed "to protect public funds from unnecessary or excessive" payments, wrote Deputy Atty. Gen. Tamar Pachter in a legal opinion on the issue.
The commission estimated that providing lawmakers with cars, gas, repairs and insurance cost about $735,800 last year. If legislators received the allowance instead, the cost would be $432,000.
Reimbursing lawmakers at 55.5 cents per mile would cost more than $1 million annually, according to figures compiled by the Legislature and the commission, based on the number of miles driven by legislators in the past.
Mileage is "a better deal for the legislators," Murray complained.
"Some legislators have districts that are bigger than certain U.S. states," said John Vigna, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles).
Lawmakers had indicated to Pachter through their attorney that if the monthly allowance was legal, they were entitled to both the $300 and mileage reimbursement.
Pachter wrote that the state Constitution permits the commission to adjust only salary and benefits. "It does not authorize the Commission to create or to adjust automobile allowances, which is not salary or benefits," Pachter's opinion said.
The leader of the Assembly's Republicans, Connie Conway of Tulare, has one of the state's largest districts: 33,000 square miles extending from Kern County to the Arizona and Nevada borders.
Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) has a large territory as well and says it's counterproductive to give her mileage instead of a car.
"In a district as large as mine, covering six counties and nearly a third of the state's coastline, the decision to eliminate state vehicles will be more costly to taxpayers," she said.
Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino) has a smaller district and estimates that she drives about 10,000 miles a year. That would cost $5,500 under the reimbursement program, more than the allowance would pay.
Some legislators say they plan to begin using their personal cars to travel around their districts. Others hope to purchase their state cars when they are auctioned.
Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana) is turning in his state-purchased 2007 Prius and will tool around his Orange County district in a personal car, a 2006 Toyota Highlander SUV.
"I can drive my district from one end to the other in 15 minutes when traffic is good," Correa said. He is fine with the state Citizens Compensation Commission's decision to take away the cars: "I think we should share in the pain of Californians."
Legislative leaders said they plan to take competing bids from car dealers or auction houses and sell most of the 76 SUVs, luxury cars and hybrids that had been purchased for lawmakers. Some of the vehicles are likely to be retained in the state motor pool.
Neither legislative house is prohibiting members from eventually buying the vehicles from a third party.
Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) hopes to be able to buy the Cadillac STS V-8 luxury sports sedan that the state purchased for him for $54,830, the most expensive vehicle in legislators' hands.
"The Cadillac meets his specific need to get him in and around the district, so he is going to stick with the vehicle," said Rocky Rushing, Calderon's chief of staff.