By Torey Van Oot and Jim Sanders
State legislators billed taxpayers more than $450,000 for on-the-job driving in the last legislative year, but officials won't say where the lawmakers went.
The Legislature began reimbursing members for work-related travel in their personal cars, including trips from their home to the Capitol, in Dec. 2011, after a program providing state-leased cars to members was cut by the Citizens Compensation Commission. The change saved taxpayers nearly $240,000 in its first year, a Bee analysis found.
The mileage reimbursements varied significantly by member, however. Some legislators declined to seek reimbursement, while others received large sums for driving thousands of miles for legislative or other official business. While some of the members logging the most miles represent vast, rural districts within driving distance of the Capitol, others from geographically compact districts in Southern California also racked up thousands of dollars in reimbursement costs.
The state Senate and the Assembly have denied a public records request from The Bee to review mileage logbooks legislators submitted when seeking the 53-cents-a-mile reimbursements for car travel related to work in the last legislative year. Officials in both houses cited "concerns regarding privacy, security and legislative privilege" in letters explaining why they are withholding the individual logbooks. Both houses did provide monthly claim sheets filed by legislators, which show overall miles and reimbursement totals that had already been provided to The Bee electronically.
Phillip Ung, policy advocate for California Common Cause, criticized the decision, calling it a sign that the Legislative Open Records Act "continues to be the least transparency-promoting law in the state of California."
"I think if legislators are going to be asking the public to reimburse them for their gas, the public has the right to know where these members are driving," he said.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, also said he does not think information contained in the logbooks merit exemptions based on the concerns cited by the Legislature. He said the logbooks could help the public judge "whether their legislators were submitting accurate and fair reimbursement requests or are they instead abusing the reimbursement privilege to pass on to taxpayers what should be a personal expense."