Taxpayer activists criticize California's purchase of new cars

Activists call state's purchase of $540,000 worth of new Ford Fusion Hybrids and other cars unnecessary perks

The state purchased $540,000 worth of new Ford Fusion Hybrids and other cars for legislators over the last 18 months, prompting criticism from taxpayer activists who call the vehicles unnecessary political perks given at a time when many Californians continue to struggle financially.

The Ford Fusions are reserved for members of the state Senate and replace fleet vehicles that have as little as 12,400 miles on their odometers. Some were bought shortly before nearly 40 Senate staff members were laid off because of a budget shortfall in the upper legislative chamber.

"The excesses and absurdities never seem to end with government," said Lew Uhler, president of the California-based National Tax Limitation Committee. "Infuriation never ends with the way that they operate."

The 20 new cars, most purchased by the state Department of General Services and leased to the Senate, are part of a normal process of swapping out older cars in the state Senate motor pool with more eco-friendly vehicles, state officials said. The newest eight cars, 2015 Fusion Hybrids, were purchased Sept. 9 for $23,935 each and placed in the Senate motor pool, where they are assigned to senators while they are in Sacramento.

The Assembly owns a separate pool of 49 cars for use by lawmakers. All but one are 2007 Toyota Camrys purchased in 2006, according to spokesman John Casey. The cars are available to members whose districts are a significant distance from Sacramento. The cars cannot be used for travel to their districts.

The automobile perks enjoyed by lawmakers have previously been the subject of controversy. Legislators once had the use of two state cars, one for their district and one for when they were in Sacramento.

In 2011, the state Citizens Compensation Commission ended the Legislature's practice of buying cars for lawmakers to use in their districts, deciding it would be cheaper to have them drive their own private vehicles and receive a travel allowance. The state-owned cars provided to lawmakers while they are in Sacramento remained.

The Senate's top administrator, Secretary Danny Alvarez, downplayed its role in the decision to buy 2015 Hybrids.

"What we did was just say, 'Hey, DGS, do you have Fusions?' We weren't saying buy new ones or anything like that. That wasn't our intent. So it was really like if we have cars, make sure they are all Fusions," Alvarez said.

Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, said the purchases were a routine part of updating the fleet.

"The majority of the vehicles that were rotated out were older-model full-size sedans that were replaced by newer hybrid vehicles as part of the continuing effort to green the state's vehicle fleet," Ferguson said.

In all, the DGS has 4,435 vehicles in its rental fleet used by various offices and state agencies. Last year, it added 278 hybrid vehicles to the fleet statewide.

Gov. Jerry Brown has issued directives to increase the number of clean-fuel cars in the fleet, including a 2012 executive order requiring that at least 10% of non-emergency cars purchased starting this year be electric vehicles.

The cars transferred out of the Senate pool for use by other state agencies included a 2007 Honda Accord with 18,131 miles and two 2006 Chevrolet Impalas with 12,392 and 13,103 miles, respectively.

"Due to the low mileage on these vehicles, they were cycled back into the state's daily rental fleet for life-cycle management purposes and are still in use," Ferguson said.

Uhler, the taxpayer advocate, scoffed that senators cannot follow the lead of Assembly members and drive older cars with less mileage on them. Uhler said he drives a 1990 Buick Riviera that has 337,000 miles.

He questioned why the state doesn't buy less expensive cars at a time when many Democratic lawmakers are complaining there isn't enough money to properly fund social service programs and that the Senate had to lay off employees.

The 2015 cars were assigned to the more senior lawmakers, Alvarez said, including Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Democratic Sens. Ben Hueso of San Diego, Marty Block of San Diego, Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens, Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara and Richard Roth of Riverside. The newer cars also went to Republican Sens. Joel Anderson of San Diego and Mike Morrell of Riverside.

Along with the cars purchased in September, the department in late 2013 also bought 10 2014 Ford Fusion Hybrids for $26,540 each for assignment to senators. In addition, in October the Senate itself purchased a used 2014 Chevy Suburban for $40,117. The sergeants-at-arms use it to drive around De León and other lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the state Assembly paid $42,694 in April for a new 2014 Buick LaCrosse that Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) can use to get around Sacramento.

She has an Assembly-owned 2012 Chevy Suburban for use in her district.

The purchases are particularly upsetting given that legislators, including Atkins, are talking about having motorists in California pay more to fix roads and freeways, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

"This is the kind of thing that drives citizen taxpayers crazy," Coupal said.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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