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Turning to greener wheels

Times Staff Writer

If you are what you drive, California lawmakers are a newly green bunch.

They’re swapping gas-sucking sport utility vehicles for gas-sipping hybrids as their official state cars.

Now that the lease on his Ford Explorer has expired, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) is driving a Toyota Prius. At least 38 of his fellow members also have chosen hybrids; only 10 have requested nonhybrid SUVs as their taxpayer-subsidized wheels.

That’s a transformation since 2002, when a single member drove a hybrid and 33 had SUVs.

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Some senators are converts too, though not nearly as many. And it was Nunez who largely orchestrated the turnaround: He used his discretionary budget to slice $6,000 off the price of a leased hybrid for any member who chose one.

“I figure in the end, there will be a cumulative savings that I think will be good for us,” Nunez said, though the lower house has no specific savings projections. “It sends the right message.”

The Legislature buys cars, then leases them to lawmakers. But taxpayers don’t foot the whole bill. Depending on lease terms, the state pays a maximum $300, $400 or $500 a month toward the cost. Anything over that is withdrawn from the lawmaker’s salary. Taxpayers buy the gas; each lawmaker gets a state-issued credit card.

Using both gas and electric technology, a hybrid gets far better mileage and pollutes less than a standard car. It is “definitely a statement car now,” said Patsy Cisneros, a Quartz Hill image consultant who advises political candidates and their families on how to dress, speak and otherwise cultivate an image.

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Conservatives are signaling that they’re frugal with Californians’ money, said Cisneros, a partner at Corporate Icon & Political Icon. Liberals’ message is, “I’m interested in the environment, and I have a strong opinion on global warming.”

Not every lawmaker opts for a state car. Those who do usually drive them in their districts.

The Assembly has 54 Dodge Stratuses for Southern California members, who fly to work, to use in Sacramento. Nunez, who earned international praise for last year’s legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions, says he’s going to “green” them too.

The speaker is actually a latecomer to his own cause. He got the Prius only this month. Its average highway gas mileage is 51 miles per gallon. His 2003 Eddie Bauer Explorer logged an average of 21.

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But “when I’m in L.A.,” he said, “since I have a driver, I don’t use my car. It’s just parked in the garage.”

An Assembly sergeant shuttles Nunez in a Ford Crown Victoria. Statewide officials, such as the treasurer, controller and governor, are chauffeured by California Highway Patrol officers in unmarked Ford Crown Victorias and SUVs.

The Assembly’s hybrid pioneer was Gloria Negrete McLeod, a 65-year-old Democrat from Chino who moved to the Senate this month. When she was first elected to the Assembly in 2000, the only hybrids available in the U.S. mass market were the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius.

An Assembly rule limited leases to American-made vehicles, but McLeod persuaded officials to bend it. It has stayed bent, allowing lawmakers to choose foreign cars if they’re hybrids.

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“If we’re all going to talk about being ecologically sensitive, we all should be doing something about it,” McLeod said. But the main reason she got a Prius, she said, was that “I’m kind of cheap, and I don’t like to spend a lot on gas.”

This year, seven lawmakers chose Ford Escape hybrids as their state-leased vehicle.

“You want to encourage the American car companies to do the right thing,” said one of them, Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate).

Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) wanted a hybrid so much last year that he took $11,000 from his office budget to pay off the lease on his SUV and get a $30,000 Prius. He said he could go two weeks without stopping for gas.

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“It looks different from every other car on the road, so people know you’re driving one,” Levine said.

Some freshmen haven’t yet decided what to get.

“I’m trying to find one that I can fit in without hitting the roof,” said Assemblyman Jim Beall Jr. (D-San Jose), who is 6 feet 4 1/2 inches.

Over in the Senate, Nunez’s counterpart, President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), has no incentive program. He does not use a driver; he leases a muscle car, a maroon Dodge Charger, about which he declined to be interviewed. His 39 charges lease 13 hybrids, 10 SUVs and a bunch of luxury sedans.

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The Assembly will pay as much as $44,000 this year for a hybrid and $40,600 for a nonhybrid. There is no cap in the Senate, other than the “Are you out of your mind?” cap imposed by chamber secretary Gregory Schmidt.

Two senators drive the Legislature’s most expensive leased cars: freshman Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and Carole Migden (D-San Francisco). Each chose a Cadillac STS. Calderon got the 2006 model, at $54,830, while Migden’s 2005 Caddie cost $53,481.

What does that say about them?

They must be baby boomers, Cisneros said. She’s right: Calderon is 49, Migden 58.

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“That’s been a status American car for many years and says steady, very steady person, very reliable, steady yet doing well,” Cisneros said.

Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) drives by far the cheapest car in the Legislature: a 2004 Toyota Prius that had been leased to former Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and is valued at $10,000.

Correa admits he’s so cheap that as an Orange County supervisor he used Wite-Out over his predecessor’s name on envelopes to avoid having to buy new ones. His hand-me-down Prius, he said, “has a couple of dings. But you can’t really tell unless you look for them.”

nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Blue car, red car

Most state lawmakers drive vehicles leased to them by the Legislature. There are clear partisan differences between those who choose hybrids and those who opt for traditional SUVs.

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Assembly

Sixty-six of the Assembly’s 80 members use leased cars. The breakdown:

* 38 Hybrids (13 Republicans and 25 Democrats)

* 10 SUVs (8 Republicans and 2 Democrats)

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* 18 Other vehicles

Senate

Thirty-six of the Senate’s 40 members use leased cars:

* 13 Hybrids (2 Republicans and 11 Democrats)

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* 10 SUVs (7 Republicans and 3 Democrats)

* 13 Other vehicles

Sources: California Assembly and Senate

Los Angeles Times

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