California Legislators’ Car Allowance Slashed

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BURBANK, CA — California legislators saw one of their most maligned perks slashed Thursday, as a panel charged with setting compensation ruled that lawmakers will have to traverse the state in their own vehicles – fueled only by a $300-a-month taxpayer-funded stipend.

The Citizens Compensation Commission didn't cut legislators' health benefits or salaries, which now average $95,291 for most lawmakers.

"But if we meet again," Commissioner Charles Murray said, "it could be everything on the table."

Taxpayers have long subsidized legislators' car leases and insurance, and have provided them with state-issued credit cards to pay for limitless supplies of gasoline.

"California is the only state that buys cars and leases them to legislators," Murray said, a practice that private-sector companies stopped doing "seven or eight years ago."

Consumer advocates praised the symbolism of eliminating the perk, which will save $2.1 million over five years, as another dent in the state's remaining $15.4 billion budget deficit.

"Even though it's only a drop in the bucket, you need drops to fill the bucket," said Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog. "I would much rather see that money go toward textbooks or health services than for some legislator's car. This has been a long time coming."

In January, The Chronicle reported that last year California taxpayers paid $208,862 for the gasoline credit-card bills for the 80-member Assembly and $86,762 for the 40-member Senate.

That will change in December, when the new transportation plan takes effect. The average annual vehicle cost of $7,400 will be cut roughly in half under the new plan, according to the commission.

It is not known what will happen to the vehicles legislators are driving now, commissioners said.

"What the commission was trying to say was that benefits that no longer exist in the rest of the world shouldn't exist for legislators," said Thomas Dalzell, a Berkeley labor lawyer who was just appointed chairman of the commission.

Some legislators say the change will affect how frequently lawmakers from faraway districts will be able to interact with their constituents.

"We respect the commission's decision," said Mark Hedlund, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. But Hedlund said it seemed that arguments about cutting the budget have evolved into "simply trying to make a political point of some kind."

Shannon Murphy, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, said the car reduction seems "punitive." In 2009, the commission slashed elected leaders' pay by 18 percent and cut benefits 8 percent, bringing the total reduction to 26 percent.

"In a state like California where some districts are huge, the one-size-fits-all approach is a concern," Murphy said. "One district alone is more than 32,000 square miles – that's bigger than 11 states."

With Thursday's cut and the possibility of more on the horizon, elected officials have shouldered deeper cuts than other state workers. Most other state employees took home 15 percent less in 2009 and 2010 because of involuntary furloughs imposed by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Currently, most state lawmakers are paid $95,291 a year. Legislative leaders, such as the speaker of the Assembly and the Senate president pro tem, are paid slightly more. Most statewide officeholders make between $130,490 and $151,127. The governor's salary is $173,987.

Lawmakers also are eligible for a tax-free stipend of $141.80 for each day the Legislature meets.

Gov. Jerry Brown declined to comment on the cuts at an appearance Thursday in Stockton, saying he hadn't studied the commission's decision yet.

E-mail the writers at [email protected] and [email protected].

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