SACRAMENTO — California lawmakers are giving up a perk that had been unique among state legislators nationwide — taxpayer-subsidized vehicles.
The program ended Thursday after the state’s Citizens Compensation Commission voted last spring to do away with the benefit, a decision prompted by California’s ongoing budget deficits and a series of stories by the Associated Press and other media.
Legislators, like many employees, will now seek reimbursement for the actual number of miles they drive on official business.
California was the only state that provided vehicles to its rank-and-file lawmakers for unlimited use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lawmakers have used the perk to purchase vehicles that included a $55,000 Cadillac sedan and a $52,000 Lexus hybrid, the AP reported a year ago. Taxpayers spent $3.5 million for the vehicles that lawmakers used in their home districts.
Senate and Assembly members also received insurance, repairs — and unlimited gasoline, another unique perk, the AP reported in 2008.
It is not clear at this point what kind of savings the changes will bring to taxpayers, if any. The state plans to examine and compare spending between the two programs in the next year.
Yet taxpayers might end up paying more for lawmakers’ travels than the compensation commission had intended when it voted to end the taxpayer-subsidized vehicles.
Commissioners voted in April to replace the unlimited vehicle program with a $300 monthly stipend. However, the state controller ruled that the commission has no authority to order the monthly allowance, so lawmakers will instead get mileage reimbursement. California employees get 55.5 cents per mile.
The commission estimated taxpayers spent an average $7,453 in vehicle costs annually for each lawmaker who accepted a vehicle. A $300 monthly allowance would have cut the average vehicle costs to $3,600 a year.
That means the annual tab for legislators’ vehicles would have dropped by more than half.
But paying lawmakers by the mile could cost taxpayers $1.2 million a year, based on mileage figures from the Legislature. Assembly members drive an average of 19,538 miles each year in their subsidized vehicles, compared to 17,649 for senators.
The Legislature’s administrators had contended that providing lawmakers with subsidized vehicles was a relative bargain compared to reimbursing them for each mile driven on official business. Senate spokesman Mark Hedlund said the old system cost the equivalent of 42.5 cents per mile, while lawmakers now will be eligible for reimbursement up to 55.5 cents per mile, although the actual reimbursement rate has yet to be set.
The state Legislature initially sought to get both the mileage reimbursement and the $300 monthly allowance, according to Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the state controller’s office, and a Sept. 15 letter from a deputy state attorney who reviewed the law at the controller’s request. The attorney general and controller rejected the double payments.
"I can’t blame them for trying to get the maximum that they can,” said commission member Charles Murray, who pushed to substitute the $300 monthly stipend for the vehicle program. "It’s a natural reaction by someone on the street. But as a legislator, I think you’d speak to a higher power, and you have to lead by example.”
Hedlund denied that the Legislature’s lawyer sought both allowances. The lawyer was merely seeking legal guidance, he said.
Murray disagreed with the attorney general’s ruling that the commission lacked the authority to create a new monthly vehicle allowance. He said he plans to ask the commission to appeal, but the commission will not meet again until next year unless chairman Thomas Dalzell calls a special meeting.
California lawmakers already have the highest annual base salaries of any state legislators in the country, at $95,291. They also receive an average of nearly $23,000 a year in daily living expenses, on top of the taxpayer-funded vehicles they will be giving up.
Legislators are not allowed to drive their state-financed vehicles as of Thursday. Some had driven their vehicles to the state Capitol or state garages around California, officials said, while legislative employees are picking up other vehicles.
The Assembly sold its 50 vehicles for $659,000, said administrative officer Jon Waldie. The Senate has yet to sell its vehicles, said Hedlund.
Hedlund said it likely will lose money in selling the more recently purchased vehicles because of the usual heavy depreciation in value.
Lawmakers are prohibited from bidding on the vehicles themselves, though they can buy their old vehicles back from a dealer.
"We don’t want anyone saying, ‘You gave them a great deal’,” said Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.