California Senate officials earlier this year hired two part-time employees to provide late-night and early-morning rides for members while they are in Sacramento, a 24-hour service that follows high-profile drunken driving arrests involving lawmakers in recent years.
The office of Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León declined to discuss the details or rationale of the program.
“We’re not going to provide comment, because it’s a security issue,” spokesman Anthony Reyes said.
Senate records show two “special services assistants” were hired Feb. 2. They work in the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Office, where their duties include providing “ground transportation for Senate members.” The employees, a retired Assembly sergeant-at-arms and a retiree from the Department of General Services, are paid $2,532 per month.
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One man who turned down the job told The Sacramento Bee that Senate officials approached him earlier this year about working from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. to drive senators home upon request.
He said he was told the shifts would come only when lawmakers were in Sacramento – generally Monday through Wednesday nights when the Legislature is in session, between January and early or mid-September. The purpose, he was told, would be to give rides “just if they were drinking too much. Just pick them up and take them home.” One legislative chief of staff confirmed that the service is intended to prevent drunken driving by legislators.
Members were later given small plastic cards with the number for “Sacramento 24 hr transportation.” Featuring a “California State Senate” banner across the top and a picture of the Capitol dome in the background, the card also includes a phone number for the Senate’s Chief Sergeant-at-Arms Debbie Manning, telling members to call her “in an emergency.”
Several senators declined to comment when asked about the service.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the rides are reflective of the Legislature’s “air of entitlement” and the “growing divide between legislators and ordinary citizens.”
“They get all these perks,” he said. “Perhaps at the end of session, when things run late, there could be some temporary allocation made so legislators can get to the airport. But on an ongoing basis, this makes no sense.”
If the choice is between providing a 24-hour ride service or lawmakers getting DUIs after drinking late at fundraisers, he added, then “the answer is not in providing them drivers. The answer is in showing some restraint.”
The added positions follow financial difficulties in the Senate that led de León, newly sworn in as leader of the house, to cut 39 jobs from the Senate’s administrative arm in November. He cited a smaller-than-expected increase in state funding for the Legislature that made the layoffs “difficult but financially necessary.”
Four lawmakers in the past five years have been accused of drunken driving, including three on downtown streets around the Capitol.
State Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, was arrested last August near the Capitol on suspicion of driving under the influence. Stopped by police around 2:30 a.m. for driving the wrong way down a one-way street, he blew a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a “wet reckless” charge.
Assemblyman Roger Hernández, D-West Covina, was found not guilty of driving under the influence after a 2012 trial in Contra Costa County ended in a hung jury. Then-Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Solana Beach, pleaded no contest to drunken driving charges in 2011 after he was spotted driving erratically in his state-issued vehicle in Sacramento. Then-Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, pleaded no contest to drunken driving charges in 2010 and was sentenced to two days in jail and three years’ probation.
The Assembly does not have overnight drivers, according to Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer for the Assembly Rules Committee, and has not considered adding them in the year that she has been in the position.
She said transportation for members is available through the special services division of the Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms Office between 7 a.m. and 1 a.m. on Mondays through Thursdays, and until midnight on Sundays, 10 p.m. on Fridays and 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
“Our employees do not work past 1 a.m.,” she said. So until the next morning, members “have to call a cab or an Uber or a family member.”
Gravert added that the Assembly had a 24-hour ride service on Sundays through Fridays until 1995, but she was unsure why the hours had been scaled back. That was the year Republicans briefly took control of the Assembly.
“The whole building changed in 1995,” she said. “A lot of rules changed.”