California is the only state that provides lawmakers with a car, gas and maintenance paid largely by taxpayers.
The perk has withstood the recessionary economy and several rounds of budget-cutting, including $11.2 billion in measures the Legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed in March.
The cost in relation to California's remaining $15.4 billion budget shortfall is small – less than $1 million a year. Lawmakers say they've done the calculations, and switching to making mileage payments for driving in a large state like California could prove even more expensive.
It nonetheless promises to be a hot topic at the April 14 meeting of the independent commission that sets salaries and benefits for California's statewide elected officials.
Cost-cutting possibilities range from providing a specific and lower monthly stipend to eliminating legislators' lease cars and reimbursing them for business miles driven, said Charles Murray, head of the California Citizens Compensation Commission.
Under a long-standing practice, the state Legislature buys a vehicle of each lawmaker's choosing. Legislators pay a share of costs to lease the vehicle, and public funds pay for gas and maintenance.
"It's seems to me that's excessive," said Murray, who helped lead a push to cut legislative salaries and benefits by 18 percent in 2009.
He said a tone for frugality was set months ago by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who ordered cuts in the number of state-issued cellphones and cars. Brown's order does not apply to the Legislature, which is a separate branch of government.
About two of every three legislators – 80 of 119 – drive a state vehicle, but some opt for used models, particularly in the Senate. The oldest car is a 2004 Toyota Prius driven by Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park, records show.
Republican Sen. Doug LaMalfa of Richvale drives the lowest-priced state vehicle, a used 2006 Chrysler 300 bought for $9,425.
Three Assembly members top the chart with vehicles costing about $48,500 – Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, a 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid; Isadore Hall, D-Compton, a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid; and Dan Logue, R-Linda, a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid. Vehicle use not monitored
High purchase prices do not result in a greater burden to taxpayers, however, because the public's subsidy is capped at a maximum monthly sum that varies depending on the length of a lease but typically is $287 in the Assembly and $282 in the Senate. Lawmakers pick up 28 percent of the lease cost of each vehicle, plus any sum above the monthly cap.
Conway, Hall and Logue, for example, pay about $230 apiece each month. Northern California legislators use their lease car at the Capitol, while Southern Californians keep it in their districts and use a pool car in Sacramento.
The legislative car program requires that the vast majority of travel be for business rather than personal use, but it does not monitor that split.
Only California offers to buy a vehicle for each legislator to use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York and New Jersey provide vehicles for legislative leaders, while Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania allow lawmakers to use pool cars for official business.
Defenders of California's practice say that cutting the legislative vehicle program would be shortsighted.
Many lawmakers drive long distances to reach the Capitol each week, and some districts encompass several thousand square miles, so switching exclusively to mileage reimbursement would not significantly cut costs and could raise them, a joint legislative study concluded.
The cost to taxpayers per vehicle averaged $7,508 in the Senate and $7,397 in the Assembly during a one-year period that ended last Nov. 30. The vehicles were driven an average of 17,649 miles and 19,538 miles, respectively, resulting in per-mile costs of 42 cents and 38 cents, the study found.
By contrast, legislators who drive their own vehicles are reimbursed by the Senate at 40 cents per mile and by the Assembly at 44 cents per mile.
"I think right now we're getting to the point where it's simply a commission that's trying to punish (legislators)," Assembly Administrator Jon Waldie said.
Murray, however, said the vehicle program is more generous than in private industry, which may provide employees with a pool car or auto allowance – but not a subsidized car of their choice.
"I think it's out of control," he said, stressing that his opinion is his own. Program targeted in past
Vehicles were among the commission's cost-cutting targets two years ago. Legislators' out-of-pocket obligation was raised from a minimum of 10 percent to a minimum of 28 percent of their car's monthly lease.
Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, said the state needs to look at trimming costs again, including legislative car subsidies. "I think it should be on the table," he said.
Cutting the program could backfire by discouraging lawmakers from driving long distances to interact with voters, said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State University, said any proposal to cut vehicle subsidies should be considered as part of a much larger evaluation of lawmakers' compensation.
Legislators currently are paid $95,291, plus about $30,000 annually in per diem for living expenses. They also receive health benefits while in office, but do not qualify for a pension.
More California lawmakers have opted not to accept a state vehicle this year than in the past, partly because of a desire to tighten spending amid the state's budget crisis.
Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, said she routinely has driven a personal vehicle, partly because it frees her of having to document business mileage or explain her use of a state car.
Republican Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, whose Modesto district is about 9,830 square miles – larger than the state of Vermont – said she studied the issue and concluded that leasing a car would be more economical than mileage reimbursement.
"There was no question that we saved hundreds of dollars per month," she said.
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