Despite the Legislature’s protest that switching to a mileage-based reimbursement system would raise expenses, the 2011 elimination of a perk providing cars to lawmakers has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of travel records.
The California Senate and Assembly spent about $750,000 on mileage in the 2015-16 session, paying members 53 cents per mile when they drove their personal vehicles on legislative business. That’s almost half the nearly $1.4 million cost of car leases, maintenance and gas in 2009-10, the last full two-year session before the program was dumped amid state budget woes.
It is nevertheless a small drop in the Legislature’s overall budget, which includes salaries and benefits for thousands of employees, travel, office supplies and other services. Spending for the Senate and Assembly totaled $246.8 million last year alone, according to annual reports, up about 14 percent since 2010.
But Secretary of the Senate Danny Alvarez said even small reductions in administrative costs provide money that can be redirected in a “beneficial way” to other legislative uses.
“Anything that’s saved in this area just means that we can use those savings in a different way,” he said.
Alvarez said he has not closely examined the fiscal impact of eliminating the car-lease program, which happened before he took over as the Senate administrator. He speculated that replacing the “wild card costs” of maintenance and volatile gas prices with the “stability” of mileage reimbursements could be behind the savings.
Members may also be driving less, Alvarez said, as the internet changes how they connect with their districts: “You can get information out easily through social media.”
For decades, taxpayers picked up the tab on cars purchased by the Legislature and then leased to lawmakers for driving to the Capitol or around their districts. The 40 senators and 80 Assembly members were allowed to choose their vehicles – some settled for used sedans, while others splurged on new Toyota Highlanders and Chevrolet Tahoes worth about $48,500 apiece – and paid a portion of the monthly lease. The state covered gas, insurance and maintenance costs as well as the remainder of the lease.
The California Citizens Compensation Commission, which sets politician pay, targeted that benefit in April 2011, following other cuts it made to salaries during the economic recession. Though eliminating the car-lease program would do little to close the state’s multibillion-dollar budget gap, members of the panel argued it was overly generous. No other state provided all lawmakers with a vehicle of their choice.
Chairman Thomas Dalzell was the only member at the time who did not support the change. Believing that the board lacked authority over legislative travel, he abstained from the vote.
He still regards the action as “petty and illegal” – a purely symbolic decision that had no effect on the state’s bottom line. But he has no interest in revisiting it, he added, because “I don’t see what’s gained.”
“It was a drama issue, not a real issue,” Dalzell said.
The panel initially proposed as a replacement a set car allowance of $300 per month, totaling about $432,000 annually, nearly halving what the Legislature spent on member vehicles. But then-Controller John Chiang ultimately blocked the plan, concluding that California law only authorized legislators to be reimbursed for their miles driven, at the same federal rate as a public employee.
The Senate and Assembly objected to the commission’s decision, jointly releasing a study that concluded switching to mileage reimbursements could actually raise travel costs. Some members, particularly those in large, rural districts, expressed concerns about having to drive their personal vehicles thousands of miles each month for meetings and constituent services.
Then-Assembly administrator Jon Waldie told The Bee that he believed the commission was simply trying to punish legislators. Reimbursing for mileage, he asserted, would be less cost-effective than paying for the vehicles, their maintenance and gas.
“Even with all that it still comes out less per mile,” he said. “That means the commission would be requiring the Legislature to spend more money than they currently do.”
Payouts are high for a handful of lawmakers who represent sprawling areas or drive long distances to the Capitol. Nine sought more than $20,000 in reimbursements during the 2015-16 session, representing about 47 percent of the mileage expenditures over those two years.
At the top of the list were Assembly members Marie Waldron, R-Escondido, and Matt Dababneh, D-Los Angeles, who both claimed more than $30,000 in mileage reimbursements.
Waldron’s office said she drives to Sacramento from her San Diego-area district because it’s hard for her to get to an airport. Dababneh said he made a campaign promise not to use pool cars available to legislators at the Capitol, so he uses his personal vehicle for all official business, including events around his district, meetings in the Bay Area and sometimes driving to Sacramento instead of flying.
“I’m a very active member,” he said. “It’s all to do my job.”
Even more lawmakers, however, filed no reimbursement claims at all: There were 24 without any mileage records last session. In 2009-10, 20 members declined legislative vehicles one or both years, though all but three of them accepted at least some financial assistance for maintenance and gas.
For legislators who don’t drive as far, the difference in cost to the state can be striking.
Former Sen. Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat, claimed $3,102 in mileage reimbursements during the last two-year session, less than what the Senate paid annually for her lease in 2009-10. In an email, she wrote that she didn’t “have much to say about the change,” though she did miss the Legislature maintaining her vehicle: “Anyone who has had to deal with hours waiting, getting a ride (to) the office and back, or juggling the time, can understand what a benefit it was!”
Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, called the elimination of the car-lease program a “wise decision that benefited taxpayers.” He received $5,350 in mileage reimbursements over the past two years, compared to 2009-10, when the Assembly paid $9,306 for his lease, maintenance and gas.
The old system was “more open-ended, and you had more miles driven,” Gaines said, whereas “something that is recorded for reimbursement, you’re more conscious of it.”
He said the switch has made him more “prudent and careful about what we ask for reimbursement on.” He does not include the 28-mile drive from his El Dorado County home to the Capitol in his mileage claims.
Former Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, drove his own car after he was first elected to the Assembly in 2002. He said it was “my one little sacrifice to the state” because of enormous budget deficits at the time, but the Speaker’s Office ultimately convinced him that it would save money on gas if he leased a more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle from the Legislature.
Leno filed for $8,485 in mileage reimbursements during the 2015-16 session, primarily driving back and forth between his home and the Capitol, compared to $12,191 that the Senate spent during the final two years of the car-lease program. When the switch happened in 2011, Leno bought his vehicle from the Senate, he said, “and I’m still driving that same car today.”
Rennie Svirnovskiy of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.