California lawmakers can say goodbye to their cars provided largely at taxpayer expense.
The California Citizens Compensation Commission voted today to give legislators a $300 monthly car allowance to drive their own vehicles, effective the first week in December.
The action was taken over the objection of new commission chairman Tom Dalzell, who cited a two-year-old opinion of the Department of Personnel Administration that the commission lacks authority over legislative travel expenses.
Dalzell proposed postponing a vote until May to provide more time for legal review.
The other five commissioners attending the meeting overruled him and voted to kill the existing car program.
Legislative salaries, health benefits and the $142 per diem for living expenses were not altered by the independent pay panel.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the change is "something members can live with," but criticized the commission for "pointing the finger at public servants and public service" by repeatedly targeting lawmakers with pay and benefits cuts.
"We all know these are tough times and certainly some cutbacks are justified but I do think there is a fine line between ensuring that their decisions reflect the times and trying to make a political point," the Sacramento Democrat said.
Shannon Murphy, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John A. Perez said a "one-size-fits-all-approach is a concern" because some members serve huge districts, as large as 32,000 square miles.
"Given the 26 percent cut legislators have already taken in salary and benefits, and the 15 percent additional cut the Speaker made to the Assembly operating budget, today's action seems punitive, and not in line with the commission's duty to size legislative compensation to the job," Murphy said in a statement.
Created by voter passage of Proposition 112 in 1990, the independent commission of seven gubernatorial appointees meets annually to set compensation for legislators and other statewide elected officials, from governor to Board of Equalization members.
The Legislature's vehicle program consumes a minuscule portion of the state budget, less than $1 million per year, but it was seized upon by the commission as an unnecessary expense in a year of massive budget deficit.
For decades, the Legislature has offered to buy a vehicle of each lawmaker's choosing and lease it back to the officeholder, who pays a portion of lease costs. Public funds pay for gas and maintenance.
The state insures each car for business travel, while lawmakers purchase private policies for personal use. The vast majority of driving is required to be for business travel, though the split is not closely monitored.
A Bee review of vehicle claims paid on lawmakers' state-issued cars showed they filed 122 claims over the past five years - roughly one for every four vehicles each year - costing taxpayers more than $768,000.
A recent legislative study found that costs for the existing vehicle lease program, including insurance, are not significantly higher and may be lower than reimbursing for miles driven in personal cars.
The current program's per-vehicle cost to taxpayers averaged $7,508 annually in the Senate and $7,397 annually in the Assembly during a one-year period that ended Nov. 30. The totals equal 42 cents and 38 cents per mile, respectively.
By contrast, legislators who drive their own vehicles are reimbursed by the Senate at 40 cents per mile and by the Assembly at 44 cents per mile.
In 2009, the pay panel cut legislative salaries from $116,208 to $95,291 and reduced per diem, car stipends and other benefits by 18 percent. It opted not to alter compensation last year.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This post was updated to include comments from Steinberg and Murphy. Updated at 2:26 p.m., April 14, 2011.