When not in a capital gripped by budget crises, state Sen. Ron Calderon can be found touring his San Gabriel Valley district in a Cadillac STS V8 Luxury Sports Sedan that the state bought for $54,830.
The Democrat from Montebello spent an average $83 per week on gasoline last year, charged to California taxpayers on a state-issued card.
When legislators’ cars need maintenance or are in accidents -- even with spouses or offspring at the wheel -- taxpayers also pay, state records show.
The cost of providing lawmakers with Cadillacs, Lincoln Town Cars, Priuses and Lexuses, keeping the vehicles full of gas and fixing them when they crash was $3.2 million during the last three years.
Although that sum is a small fraction of the $24-billion budget shortfall, it has drawn the attention of the California Citizens Compensation Commission. The panel, which determines lawmakers’ pay and recently voted to slash their salaries by 18% starting next year, will meet this week to consider cutting benefits as well.
Commission Chairman Charles Murray said the idea that taxpayers are providing legislators with $50,000 luxury cars is hard to swallow, given the state’s budget problems.
“I personally think it’s ludicrous,” said Murray, who owns an insurance company in Los Angeles. “You have guys out of work, people losing their job, departments downsizing, and they [legislators] are saying, ‘Look at me in my STS.’ ”
California is one of only three states that provide legislators with cars for use in their districts, and the vast majority of states do not provide gasoline cards, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Golden State’s 120 lawmakers are by far the highest paid in the country, with a $116,208 base salary -- more for leadership positions -- and about $36,000 a year in tax-free per diem allowance to defray living expenses away from home. And in Sacramento, lawmakers have access to a pool of state cars.
The state spreads part of the purchase price of a car over a four-year “lease” to the lawmaker, factoring in depreciation, and pays 90% of the monthly cost or up to $350, whichever is less. Because lawmakers pay a small portion of the cost, they are permitted to use the cars for “incidental” personal travel, according to Jon Waldie, the Assembly’s chief administrative officer.
Waldie said there is no manual defining “incidental,” but lawmakers are instructed that the 10% or so they pay for the car is a guideline for the amount of nonofficial use.
Under the lease formula, 44 legislators pay less than $50 a month to have new cars. Some pay more.
Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) drives a Cadillac CTS purchased for him by the state for $41,300, including $4,226 for upgraded wheels and Bluetooth. Huff said he pays $145 per month for the car, essentially covering the upgrades.
He said he supports the scrutiny of the car benefit by the citizens commission but added, “There does come a point where it just becomes punishment as opposed to saving money.”
Calderon, who chose a car that included $2,400 in options -- 18-inch wheels and tires -- pays the state $311 a month for it. At the end of the four years, he will have paid $14,928 for use of a $54,830 car, which the state will then either devote to other purposes or sell.
“If there is a decision to disallow the use of vehicles in the district, I would happily surrender the vehicle I now drive in commonality with the sacrifices others are making in these difficult economic times,” Calderon said.
Assemblywoman Mary Salas (D-Chula Vista) opted for a $1,495 sunroof on the Ford Escape Hybrid that she selected, bringing the purchase price to $30,700. And the state spent $2,748 to add a Chrome Bentley Grill and a navigation system to the $28,839 Chrysler 300 purchased in 2006 for then-Assemblyman and current state Sen. Curren Price Jr. (D-Inglewood). His out-of-pocket monthly payment was $40.60.
Five senators and 12 Assembly members have refused state-purchased cars. They include Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks) who decided when he was elected last year to use his personal car.
“We’re cutting education. We’re cutting other services. We all have to make some sacrifice,” said Strickland, who does accept a state gasoline card.
In the last three years, the state, which is self-insured, has paid $539,000 on 213 property damage and injury claims involving legislators’ cars.
Several lawmakers have had multiple accidents, including former state Sen. Carole Migden, a San Francisco Democrat who still has use of a state car as a member of the Integrated Waste Management Board.
In June 2006, Migden sideswiped a bus, costing the state $5,027, records show. Less than a year later, in May 2007, she rear-ended a car that then struck a third vehicle. The state paid $25,479 for property damage and still faces claims from those injured.
Migden declined to comment.
Salas has filed three claims, including $23,000 for damage caused when she ran a red light and struck another vehicle, records show.
Californians have paid for several accidents in the last three years that happened when lawmakers’ relatives were behind the wheel.
Maria Robles, the wife of then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, was driving his official vehicle in October 2006 when it struck the rear of another vehicle, costing the state $19,000.
Then-Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia’s son Javier “made a right turn in front of oncoming traffic” in a December 2006 accident that cost the state $22,000, state records say.
In September 2008, Maxine Yee, the wife of Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), was driving him to the airport when she ran into a stalled car. That cost taxpayers $32,600.