While Gov. Jerry Brown struggles to erase $25 billion in red ink from the state budget by slashing everything from cell phones to staff, California lawmakers routinely rack up thousands of dollars in bills annually with a political perk unique in the country – no-limit, state-issued gasoline credit cards.
Last year, California taxpayers footed the bill for those legislative gas credit cards – $208,862 for the 80-member Assembly and $86,762 for the 40-member state Senate, according to documents requested by The Chronicle through the state's open records laws.
Legislators can fill up their cars – often taxpayer-funded vehicles – or have them maintained by swiping the card at the gas station; they then send the bills to the Assembly or Senate rules committees, which pay them.
The state-issued plastic is supposed to be used for legislative purposes only – although there is no limit specified for daily or annual spending on the card, said Jon Waldie of the Assembly Rules Committee. Waldie added, however, that "we're checking every charge that comes in" to ensure the cards are used for public, and not private, business.
Watchdog groups admit the amount of taxpayer money involved in the gas charges is not even a drop in the bucket of California's enormous deficit. But at a time when the governor is grasping for every crumb to cut, "this is a symbol," said Jamie Court, who heads Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog.
"If you're making cuts for the blind, the elderly and the schoolkids, then you shouldn't have unlimited credit cards for gas," he said. "And if you don't rip up your credit card, how do you look constituents in the eye when you close their parks and take away their health care?"
Republicans said the taxpayer-issued plastic held by the Legislature, which is dominated by Democrats in both houses, also undermines Brown's argument for five-year extensions of increased rates in sales, income and some corporate taxes.
"How can Jerry Brown expect voters to hand over more of their tax money to an established elite, who seem more interested in self-enrichment than in sharing the sacrifice themselves?" said GOP strategist Hector Barajas. "People out there are surviving, they're not living. And these guys seem to be living large."
In response to The Chronicle's records request, the rules committees for the Assembly and Senate released total annual charges by each lawmaker for gas and vehicle maintenance; the records did not provide a detailed accounting of individual items purchased or the locations of the purchases, presumably for security purposes.
Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures show that California is alone among states in offering its entire Legislature the privilege. Most other states, according to the NCSL, either reserve such a perk for leadership or – as is common in private industry – simply reimburse for mileage.
Waldie notes that many states do not have the land mass of California, the nation's most populous state, where some legislative districts encompass huge stretches of rural territory that are not covered by regular air service.
A long drive
That may explain why the biggest user of the taxpayer-funded gas card is Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber (Tehama County), who is also vice chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee.
Nielsen – one of four Republicans who made the top five in gas-card spending in the Assembly – racked up $9,928.97 on his card last year in addition to nearly $500 on car maintenance, state records show.
With his taxpayer-funded 2009 Ford – a $39,950 Edge all-wheel-drive, which has a combined mileage of about 22 mpg, that would pay for nearly 3,000 gallons of gas, enough for more than 200 round trips from Sacramento to his home district.
Among officeholders in the Senate, Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco had the largest bill; he charged $4,959.75 last year, plus $354.91 for maintenance.
Both Nielsen's and Yee's staffers say their bosses limit their travel almost entirely to their car and are frequently on the ground in their districts.
"It certainly doesn't surprise us that he uses more fuel," said David Read, chief of staff to Nielsen. He said the assemblyman represents the second largest geographical district in the state – one stretching from northern Yolo County to the Oregon line.
"He's up and down the district two and three times a week," said Read. "Just getting from Sacramento to the far reaches of the district is a 6-hour car trip … and we don't have any Southwest flights to our district."
Likewise, Adam Keigwin, spokesman for Yee, said the Democrat commutes daily from the state Capitol to his district – a decision that he said enables him to hold daily and evening meetings to better serve his constituents.
Top gas card spenders in 2010
Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber (Tehama County), $10,410.68
Isadore Hall, D-Compton (Los Angeles County), $6,739.81
Dan Logue, R-Linda (Yuba County), $6,441.70
Van Tran*, R-Costa Mesa (Orange County), $5,773.79
Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert (Riverside County), $5,681.14
Dean Florez*, D-Shafter (Kern County), $7,070.00
Dave Cogdill*, R-Modesto (Stanislaus County), $5,941.26
Leland Yee, D-San Francisco $5,314.66
Dennis Hollingsworth*, R-Murrieta (Riverside County), $4,628.21
Sam Aanestad*, R-Penn Valley (Nevada County), $4,530.59.
*Denotes former member of Legislature.
Source: Senate and Assembly rules committees
E-mail Carla Marinucci at [email protected].