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California lawmakers face per-diem cuts

April 18, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
State lawmakers are about to lose their legislative cars, and per-diem pay may be next. An advisory panel is asking questions about the tax-free per diem legislators get, whether they're in the state Capitol or not.

Days after a commission took away lawmakers' cars, they're going after the perk of the daily per diem, tax-free for anyone living outside a 50-mile radius from the Capitol.

The "Tea Party" used the tax deadline to call for wiser spending of taxpayer money. Most were appalled to learn state lawmakers are paid a $142-a-day, tax-free per diem for living expenses while serving in Sacramento, roughly $30,000 a year. That's on top of their $95,000 yearly salary.

"This is our tax money that these people taking and gallivanting around with and I don't appreciate it," said Angelo Andriani, a "Tea Party" activist.

The California Citizens Compensation Commission is looking into whether that stipend should be taxed and if lawmakers should even get the money when they miss session due to illness or out-of-town business.

"Everything from a compensation point of view, we feel has swung too far to the left, and we're just trying to bring it back to center," said Charles Murray, commissioner of the California Citizens Compensation Commission.

The commission has already ordered lawmakers to turn in their taxpayer-funded cars and gas cards by December 1. They'll get a $300-per-month transportation allowance instead.

In 2009, the panel also slashed their salaries by 18 percent.

"Many of us want to punish our elected officials, our politicians," said state Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park). "We shouldn't use the compensation as a way to punish. You punish the elected officials by voting them out of office."

Former Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a Republican who used to represent Orange County, says the per diem helped him maintain a second household in Sacramento. A car and per diem change might make the job less attractive.

"I know that I would have to think twice about it now if I were to think about coming up here again," said DeVore. "You're going to get a different type of lawmaker serving -- more independently wealthy people, more retired people, perhaps younger lawmakers who don't have families."

The California Citizens Compensation Commission has yet to set a date for a vote. A Sacramento Bee analysis of lawmaker per diems found that both Assembly members and state senators got their per diem 75 percent of the time that they were absent during a session.