Lawmaker rejects per diem, tax-funded car

Lawmaker rejects per diem, tax-funded car

Catharine BakerA newly-elected Bay Area lawmaker isn’t reveling in the perks of public office. She’s forgoing two of the best bonuses afforded to members of the California Legislature.

As her first act in office, Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Pleasanton, has declined per diem payments and a taxpayer-funded vehicle, saying that it’s a way to give something back to taxpayers.

“Rather than introduce a bill on the first day of session I want to give something back to the taxpayers and constituents that elected me to office,” Baker said in a press release announcing her decision to forgo the perks. “My very first action as an Assembly member will be to decline both the state issued vehicle and per diem.”

Baker declines per diem

In addition to their annual salary of $97,197, state lawmakers receive $141.86 tax-free for every day they are in Sacramento on legislative business. Latin for “per day,” the intent of the supplemental payment system is to help elected officials “defray additional living expenses, such as maintaining a second residence,” according to the California State Assembly Office of the Chief Clerk.

Other states commonly provide per diem to state lawmakers. However, as the Orange County Register pointed out in 2010, “What makes our lawmakers unique is the number of billable days they rack up. Many California lawmakers were eligible for more than 200 days of per diem in 2009 and many netted more than $37,000 in tax-free money. … All told, the state spent more than $4 million on legislative per diem in 2009.”

Traditionally, lawmakers that represent the Sacramento region have declined to accept per diem. But that’s not a legal requirement. In 2012, then-Assemblyman Richard Pan, who represented portions of Sacramento, accepted per diem to help offset the costs of a recent move, according to the Sacramento Bee.

“I think the rationale is that I have to maintain two places of residence,” Pan told the Bee. “I know that we’re all trying to work things out.”

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said Baker’s decision to decline per diem was a “very smart political move.”

“Catharine actually has a legitimate claim to the per diem because it would be 3 hours’ round trip for her,” Coupal said. “Certainly those who live close to the Capital should consider declining.”

History of abuse, misuse of state vehicles

In addition to per diem, lawmakers have also abused the perk of a state-issued vehicle. In August, State Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. The San Diego lawmaker drove his state-issued vehicle the wrong way on a one-way street near the state Capitol. The charges were later downgraded to a lesser “wet reckless” charge that carries no jail time.

Despite the incident, voters re-elected Hueso on Nov. 4 with 55 percent of the vote.

Former State Sen. Carole Migden rear-ended a Fairfield motorist in 2007, while driving her state-issued Toyota Highlander. The other driver sustained minor injuries and received a $335,000 settlement paid for by taxpayers.

In 2012, the Associated Press uncovered a scheme where lawmakers ordered upgrades to state-issued vehicles and then purchased the vehicles for their personal use. Of 64 lawmakers that had state-financed repairs on their vehicles that year, 37 went on to purchase their vehicles. In some cases, the improvements were scheduled days before leaving office.

“At least a dozen California lawmakers repaired or upgraded their state-provided vehicles at taxpayers’ expense in the final weeks before the one-of-its-kind perk was ending, then later bought those vehicles for personal use,” according to AP. “The improvements ranged from cosmetic changes such as fixing dents and replacing wheel covers, to getting tires, multipoint inspections and new parts such as fuel pumps that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.”

Baker possible trend-setter?

Could more GOP lawmakers follow Baker’s lead?

GOP activist Allen Wilson said he hopes other members who talk tough on taxpayer funds, follow her example.

“I implore other GOP Assembly members to follow Catharine Baker’s lead,” said Wilson, who believes the party faithful appreciate when “a legislator does more than talk.”

That opinion was echoed by one GOP party leader. “I am so proud of my friend Catharine Baker, who is leading by example by declining a state owned vehicle and a per diem,” Harmeet Dhillon, vice-chair of the California Republican Party, recently wrote on her Facebook page. “I hope I hear about other Republican and Democrat legislators taking this pledge.”

Baker, the first Republican to win a seat in the Bay Area in years, represents the communities of Alamo, Danville, Dublin, Lafayette, Livermore, Moraga, Orinda, Pleasanton, San Ramon and Walnut Creek.

Tags assigned to this article:
Ben HuesoJohn HrabelegislatureCatharine Baker

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