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Lawmakers' mileage checks driving up costs

A citizens' panel was thwarted when it tried to set a $300 limit on state lawmakers' monthly car allowances. Now, with a rate of 53 cents a mile, some have gotten reimbursements of more than $2,000.

April 20, 2012|By Patrick McGreevy
  • Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) claimed 5,157 miles driven on state business in February, which gave him a reimbursement check of $2,733.
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) claimed 5,157 miles driven on state… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — Reacting to public outrage over legislative perks, a state panel decided last year to cut lawmakers' monthly car allowance to $300, but a legal glitch has allowed some to get up to nine times that amount.

The Citizens Compensation Commission, which is appointed by the governor, had hoped to save taxpayers money when it voted to set the $300 limit and take state-issued cars away from lawmakers. But the attorney general's office later determined that the panel did not have the authority to approve the allowance.

So lawmakers instead have been reimbursed for use of their personal cars at the rate of 53 cents per mile. As a result, taxpayers are on the hook for a lot more than the commission intended.

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), for example, claimed 5,157 miles driven on state business in February, which gave him a reimbursement check of $2,733. Assemblyman Dan Logue (R-Linda) claimed 4,304 miles the same month, which entitled him to $2,291.

At least 40 Assembly members — half of the lower house — have received monthly reimbursement checks greater than the $300 limit set by the commission, including 10 who pocketed payments of more than $1,000, records show.

"That was definitely not our intention," said Commissioner Chuck Murray, president of a Los Angeles insurance company. The panel, Murray said, was consulting with an attorney about a possible challenge to the attorney general's ruling.

Also in favor of limiting the amount lawmakers can be reimbursed for mileage is Lew Uhler of the National Tax Limitation Committee, a Sacramento-based group that supports smaller government and lower taxes.

"There are some people who drive that much, but they are traveling salesmen and truck drivers, not state legislators," Uhler said. "Let's put a cap on what they are paid."

If Nielsen were reimbursed for the remainder of the year at the same rate he was for the three months the policy has been in effect, he could end up being paid more than $27,000 for mileage. That would be on top of $28,000 in annual tax-free per diem expenses and his $95,000 salary.

Nielsen was out in his Northern California district Friday and not available for comment, according to an aide, who defended the mileage claims.

"He has the second-biggest district, with nine counties, so the distances are very different than for a district in Sacramento which has a lot less area," said Alice Alecu. "Assemblyman Nielsen, as well as other members of the Legislature, are simply complying with the new rules."

Jon Waldie, the chief administrative officer of the Assembly, has refused to release the detailed travel logs filed by lawmakers, citing "concerns regarding privacy, security and legislative privilege."

That drew criticism from Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., who said the logs would show whether trips involved public business or were for private benefit.

"If they are unwilling to inform the public, then the public should be unwilling to compensate them for those miles"' Vosburgh said.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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