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State legislator car benefits to be slashed

April 14, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Big changes for a state legislator perk: A state panel slashes the amount of money California taxpayers will spend to keep legislators on the road.

For years, California has provided thousands of dollars in state-paid vehicles, car insurance, repairs and gas for legislators. But that's about to change.

California is the only state in the U.S. to provide lawmakers with cars largely paid for by taxpayers. But the free ride is over.

A taxpayer-provided car is one of the valued perks lawmakers have in California. It comes with an unlimited gas card and free maintenance. But not for long.

The California Citizen Compensation Commission stripped them of that perk and instead will give each legislator a $300-per-month transportation allowance starting December 1. The move saves the cash-strapped state more than $2 million over five years.

"I think everybody has to share in the pain and these are cuts which have to take place," said Charles Murray, chairman of the Calif. Citizens Compensation Commission.

Car benefits have long angered taxpayers, especially during these tough budget times when the average tab per lawmaker is $7,500 a year.

On top of that, the public pays for accidents too. Former state Senator Carole Migden's 2007 multi-vehicle crash, for instance, cost nearly $400,000 to settle.

"It's like the taxpayers are always there to clean up the mess from state government. This is just one more example," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

But for those lawmakers whose districts encompass several counties, a $300 a month allowance doesn't cut it.

State Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) says it takes about eight hours one way to visit her farthest constituents near the Oregon state line.

"If I didn't have a car that was provided by the state, obviously I would have to visit my constituents less," said Evans. "There is no other way to get around."

About two-thirds of lawmakers, 80 of 120, take advantage of a state vehicle. Those who don't have one say the perk seems excessive given the times.

"I found it very difficult to be up here and hearing about all the sacrifices other people are making," said state Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar).

Some lawmakers say these cutbacks are starting to feel punitive. The commission already cut their salaries by 18 percent to $95,000 per year, and their per diem to $142 per day.