Leg Administrators Still Get Tax-Paid Cars
By KATY GRIMES
Proving once again why California needs a part time Legislature, a recent news story about state-funded cars for legislators showed some bad deals and financial abuses. But the rest of the story is not just who drives which car, and how much it costs; the story is the lack of transparency over perks and benefits.
Three weeks ago I was contacted by Capitol staffers who reported that there was a small group of Senators making a push to receive state-funded cars again, after the California Citizen Compensation Commission cut legislators’ cars.
But the way the cars were going to be concealed was even more interesting. the cars were going to be designated “district cars.”
Some legislative districts have a “district car” so that staffers don’t have to put miles and wear and tear on personal vehicles. But other legislative districts have found that managing a district car is a bigger bookkeeping and administrative problem than it is to ask staff to keep track of mileage for reimbursement.
I contacted the Secretary of the Senate, Gregory Schmidt, for an answer. “That’s not going to happen,” Schmidt said. And Schmidt ought to know since he was the guy burdened with cleaning up the last Senate car fiasco.
Calls to different Republican and Democratic Senate offices all resulted in the same answer: “We haven’t heard anything about this.” The deafening silence coming from the Senate makes me wonder if some Senate offices really have not heard anything about receiving state-funded cars again, or an Edict from on High was passed down.
And then today, before I could make any more calls, I received the following response from Republican Senator Joel Anderson’s office: “All media inquiries regarding administrative items, such as the Senator’s transportation, should be addressed to Greg Schmidt of the Senate Rules Committee.”
Since I already talked to Schmidt, it appears that this is a topic that some in the Senate want to go away.
And the niggling issue of the tip made me wonder…. It would be very easy to keep a district car available for legislators to use, without anyone being alerted to the expense. And unless some eagle-eye reporter inquired about ownership of the vehicle, no one would be the wiser until the biannual spending reports on the Legislature came out — not due until the end of 2012.
A Dec. 2010 story in Bakersfield Now reported by the Associated Press found that the top five unelected administrative Senate and Assembly employees also drive state-funded cars, for a total of $180,500. As did legislators, the employees pay personal use on the vehicles.
Bakersfield Now reported:
Schmidt, Greg, secretary of the Senate: used 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid; $19,600; personal use: $27.02.
Beard, Tony, Senate chief sergeant-at-arms: used 2006 Lexus RX 400h Hybrid; $28,850; personal use: $34.52.
Waldie, Jonathon, Assembly chief administrative officer: 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid; $43,215; personal use: $36.18.
Pane, Ronald, Assembly chief sergeant-at-arms: 2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid; $43,332; personal use: $31.46.
In April 2011, the California Citizens Compensation Commission ruled that senators and Assembly members would lose their state-funded cars by the end of the year. Taxpayers applauded the change, but the decision did not go over well with everyone in the Legislature.
Some legislators responded well, like Assemblyman San Rafael Democrat, Jared Huffman, that cars are not inappropriate “given what we’re asking others to do,” reported a story in Watch Sonoma County. “I will resist commenting on what other legislators say about it. I will just say I’m certainly not going to complain about it. If there’s a single theme for the times were in, it’s shared sacrifice. I fully expect to be part of that sacrifice,” Huffman said.
Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, created a stir when she voiced her disagreement when the commission decided to take her car away. Evans Tweeted that a state-funded car “is not a luxury.” She sent out several more Tweets including one that said the state could no longer afford to send her to meet constituents in Humboldt, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties.
When she received criticism for her position, she explained that she was trying to inject humor into the situation.
The Sacramento Bee story highlighted the $1 million loss the state has suffered because of the sale of Assembly and Senate vehicles. “The Assembly and the Senate have sold 64 vehicles that were part of a now-defunct legislative car program. Instead of paying subsidized leases on a state-purchased car of their choosing, lawmakers now receive a monthly stipend to cover costs related to driving on the job,” the Bee reported.
While the story was interesting, what was not included in the story was even more so. Several legislators’ names were absent from the list of state-funded vehicles. That is because they do not use a state vehicle.
Fresno area Republican Assemblywomen Linda Halderman’s office said that she doesn’t believe that a state car is the best use of taxpayer dollars, despite the large, rural district in which she lives. Halderman drives her own personal vehicle when she is in her district.
Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, uses her personal car when as well. Grove’s office said that she not only agrees that a state-funded car is not the best use of taxpayer funds, legislators should abide by the same IRS rules as taxpayers about mileage reimbursements. She and her staff keep track of Assembly business-related mileage, as required by the IRS.
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, has never taken a state-funded car either. Harkey’s office said that using her own car to commute is what other people have to do to get to their jobs.
It Should Be A Part-Time Job
Even with the state in economic peril, there are still legislators worrying about their own perks, and benefits, and it’s usually the legislators who adamantly insist that they are “public servants.”
This is just more proof that a life spent in public office is a life spent further away from reality.
The current rule from the Commission states that legislators who drive personal vehicles will receive $300 a month to cover the lease, gasoline, insurance and repair payments. The commission estimated that the new vehicle compensation system would save more than $2 million over five years.
FEB. 9, 2012
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